Health Insurance in America


Bush’s “Health Care Reform” 2: Selling the Scam

In the previous post, I said Bush’s pro-corporate proposal to address the health care problem through tax policy was liable to turn out to be the only initiative in the SOTU that he actually cared about and might try to implement. So far, I seem to be batting a thousand. He hasn’t mentioned the ethanol/alternative fuels thing, and even in the White House nobody knows what “Civilian Reserve Corps” means, let alone how it would be set up, who would be in it, or what it would do. But less than 48 hours after the speech ended, he was already out on the hustings hustling his health care “reform” package. Continue reading

Coal Miners’ Health Ins Stripped in Bankruptcy

The lot of Appalachia’s coal miners has ever been a struggle, above ground and below. And now comes a fresh blow for more than 3,000 unionized miners who will lose their health care and retirement benefits under a federal judge’s ruling that it is not necessary for their troubled employer to honor its contract guarantees. Some veteran miners among the 2,300 affected retirees already suffer from black lung and other occupational diseases, but they nevertheless face loss of their medical benefits. So do 1,000 active miners, under the order of a bankruptcy judge in Kentucky.

The ruling makes it easier for Horizon Natural Resources, the nation’s fourth-largest coal company, to sell its six unionized mines as it undergoes bankruptcy. Potential buyers prefer the company’s nonunion mines as better bargains, since they are freer of ongoing financial obligations to workers. So the order canceling medical and other contract benefits presumably levels the auction field for buyers. This is small comfort for the miners caught in the crunch of federal bankruptcy law.

This cruel situation sounds like the stuff of another folk-song lament in Appalachia as the miners watch creditors go to the head of the line. But the bankruptcy judge, William Howard, found that he was well within existing law and might even save jobs if the mines can be sold and kept open in some fashion. Thus does bankruptcy law trump miners’ supposedly guaranteed, doubtlessly hard-earned benefits. The union is vowing an appeal, but the law clearly needs humane revision.

Worker Wages and Health Insurance Should Be Center of Trade Debate

In an Op-Ed in today’s NYT, Wiiliam Gould, chairman of the National Labor Relations Board under Clinton, makes the case that no matter who is elected in November, national governments can have little impact on slowing globalization. They can, he argues, have a significant effect on the impact of those changes domestically.

Stanford, Calif. — Wages declined and unemployment held steady last month. So at this week’s convention and for the rest of the campaign, John Kerry is likely to make an issue of Americans’ anxiety about jobs – and his promised insistence upon labor standards as part of future trade agreements is an astute political stance.

But from a practical standpoint, it will have almost no effect. The adoption of labor and environmental standards, while symbolically significant, will not slow America’s job and income losses, and the prospect for significant international negotiations on such matters is remote.

One problem is that global wage disparities are enormous. No serious person argues that wages, economic benefits and other aspects of employment should be equal or even comparable in the industrialized and developing worlds. That is because such a policy would lead to economic devastation for the developing world, disrupting international trade and enhancing prospects for worldwide conflict.

An international minimum wage, for example, would also require that any trading partner with the United States have some form of acceptable wage. But what would the wage be, and how would it be enforced? If the United States determines such matters for itself, it risks international opprobrium for a unilateralist approach, a claim with which the Bush administration is familiar.

But while international standards for economic matters like wages are not practical, the same cannot be said for so-called core standards that have been adopted by the International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations. These standards, intended to promote fair treatment of workers, are not binding. But the president and Congress could include them in future trade agreements – and even insist upon their inclusion in Nafta itself and legislation promoting trade with China.

To improve the prospects of workers in the third world, the United States could provide more foreign aid, which could then be spent on education. Yet the United States now ranks dead last among developed nations in percentage of gross domestic product devoted to foreign aid, and the political wherewithal to increase foreign aid is thus far not forthcoming.In many ways international trade is a domestic issue: trade brings change, and change frequently means painful dislocation that can be assuaged only by social programs. In this context national health insurance makes sense, as does a wage insurance program like the one Bill Bradley advocated in 2000. What laid-off auto and steel workers need is the same as what their outsourced service and professional counterparts need: not a new trade war, but domestic legislation on health benefits and wages. That should be the focus of the trade debate in 2004.

Some Things Work 2

Health Initiative working, study says


By Frank Sweeney

Mercury News

Santa Clara County’s Children’s Health Initiative has proven far more successful than expected, providing insurance coverage for more than 29,000 youngsters in its first two years, according to an analysis of the program released today.

Launched 3 1/2 years ago to extend health coverage to uninsured children, the initiative spurred large enrollment increases for two major public health programs funded by state and federal governments — Medi-Cal and Healthy Families.

And it enrolled more than 15,000 children in the county-funded Healthy Kids program, designed to reach children who are either undocumented immigrants or whose families make too much money to qualify for the government-subsidized programs.

“It’s rather extraordinary. It’s a tremendous success,” said Joseph Macrum, spokesman for the Santa Clara Family Health Plan, a county agency that runs the initiative programs.

For single mothers such as Celia Gonzalez of San Jose, the program is the only way she can get health coverage for her 13-year-old son, Erick Villasenor, and her 3-year-old daughter, Valerie DeLatorre.

“This is absolutely the best way to get health care,” she said in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter at the Family Resource Center on South White Road in East San Jose, where people can enroll in the programs.

“This is absolutely the best way to get health care,” she said in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter at the Family Resource Center on South White Road in East San Jose, where people can enroll in the programs.

She heard about the initiative from friends and saw advertisements, then enrolled two years ago, she said. Before then, she had to take her children to emergency rooms, which she said was “very difficult.”

“I had to pay the doctor at the point of treatment. Just a simple consultation was $150, and then you have to buy the medicines,” said Gonzalez, who works as a waitress.

There are some things government has to do because nobody else can–or will. Santa Clara County defined a crying need in its poorest population–lack of medical insurance for kids–and instead of turning their backs or cutting their budget or blaming the population itself for being too poor to afford the insurance, they did something about it, and what they did worked.

Is Santa Clara County richer than every other county in the US? No. It’s priorities are different. It recognized that it was less expensive in the long run to provide affordable health care to its low income population than it was to have them filling up hospital emergency rooms that then had to be subsidized to keep them from going under. The Santa Clara County Program was developed by a coalition of organizations, agencies, and businesses (click the title and read the rest of the article) and funded by the tobacco tax. If they can do it, other counties–and states–can do it.

Why aren’t they?

Microsoft stands by cuts in benefits

Update: Microsoft was embarrassed by the response to its benefit cuts–as they should have been–but aren’t backing away from them. So much for ‘listening to employee feedback’.


The man in charge of Microsoft Corp.’s worldwide personnel efforts didn’t exactly expect employees to celebrate the company’s decision to scale back aspects of its benefits package. He knew it would be tough news for many of them to swallow.

But Ken DiPietro says he was still a little surprised at how the response unfolded, with thousands of employees expressing their displeasure in what became a very public manner.

“I feel badly about it. I understand the emotion attached to it,” said DiPietro, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for human resources.

“I think we probably could have done a much better job internally of messaging and communicating the changes and giving a little bit better context.”

Those changes include less vacation time for new hires, a smaller discount for employees on Microsoft stock and the introduction of a co-payment for certain brand-name prescription drugs.

Employees, in an unusual display of dissent, strongly criticized the cuts in an informal, internal poll that was leaked to the media and reported widely last week.

More than criticizing the announced changes, however, some employees worry that the cutbacks are a sign of things to come — as Microsoft tries to reduce expenses in a broader effort to improve profit margins as revenue growth slows.DiPietro did not put that issue to rest. “I’m not going to comment on that. The reality is that every year we look at the total portfolio of compensation and benefits that our employees enjoy, and we make modifications in those elements — or not, depending on what the data says and what the surveys say and what employee feedback is.”

But despite the employee reaction to the latest announcement, the company doesn’t plan to reconsider its plans, he said. He cited the work that led to the decision, including market research, employee focus groups, surveys and other measures.

More on this later–there are ramifications for both workers and taxpayers in part of this plan. (To read the rest of the article, click the title.)

Microsoft Cuts Employee Benefits

Corporate America is so determined to keep its profits up at the expense of its workers that even the richest company in the world is making cuts in its benefits programs because its stock price dipped a little. Needless to say, this sign of overwhelming greed isn’t sitting well with its employees.


In announcing a series of benefit cuts last week, Microsoft Corp. asked its workers to consider the long-term value of the changes to the company and, by extension, to them, as employees and shareholders.

But many employees are having a tough time seeing it that way.

An informal poll conducted among employees on the Microsoft intranet, but not under the official auspices of the company, suggests a groundswell of opposition to the changes and an unusually strong wave of dissent in a place where employees are known for their allegiance to the corporate cause.

Although the results don’t reflect a scientific sample of the employee base, the poll had drawn nearly 3,000 responses as of yesterday, with more than 90 percent saying they were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the company’s decision to alter the terms of a program through which employees buy Microsoft stock at a discount.

“This change will cost the company far more in lost morale than they could ever save,” one person wrote in response to the poll’s request for comments. Hundreds of employees left written responses on the poll, all but a few of them criticizing the changes.

“This is a very disheartening change for me,” wrote one. “I fear what may come next. It seems as if everyone is expecting a slower rate of revenue growth for MSFT. Are cuts like this going to be the norm in order for us to squeeze out profits? What gets cut next?”

(To read the rest, click the title)

New CA Health Insurance Law Faces Showdown

Gray Davis signed a law before he left office as Gov of California–replaced by the Terminator in a controversial recall election–called SB-2. Among other things, SB-2 requires all businesses with 50 or more employees to offer them health insurance. California businesses promptly started a referendum to undo it.

By Marc Lifsher, LA Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The November ballot battle over California’s controversial new law on employer-provided health insurance is shaping up to be both noisy and expensive.

The law, known as SB 2 and signed in the waning days of Gov. Gray Davis’ abbreviated term, is facing a recall of its own. A business-backed referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot could wipe the law off the books.

The contest officially kicks off today when a coalition that includes labor unions, doctors, nurses, church groups and retirees launches its defense of the 2003 law. Among other provisions, SB 2 will eventually require businesses with 50 or more employees to provide health insurance for their workers.

The pro-SB 2 campaign plans to play on the insecurity of California voters who worry about paying an ever larger share of their employer-provided health insurance or losing their coverage altogether.

For example, proponents of the law plan to focus on its less publicized provisions, which ban employers from dropping current health insurance plans and limit workers’ share of health insurance premiums to 20%.

At the same time, the “Yes on SB 2” campaign will soft-pedal the law’s mandatory-insurance provision, which has been a lightning rod for opponents.

And that’s exactly where business groups, which won’t officially launch their anti-SB 2 campaign until summer, see a soft spot. Employers argue that the law is a job killer that will raise their costs, lead to higher taxes and insert government meddling and bureaucracy into the healthcare market.

(To read the rest, click the title)

Firms offer plan for uninsured workers

Posted on Tue, May. 11, 2004

By Bruce Japsen

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – More than 50 of the country’s largest employers said Monday that they will band together to offer health insurance to workers who otherwise would not qualify, offering coverage to 4 million uninsured workers and their dependents by next year.

The companies include major Tarrant County employers — American Airlines parent AMR Corp., Lockheed Martin and Bell Helicopter parent Textron — as well as McDonald’s, Sears Roebuck, Home Depot, Ford Motor and General Electric.

The plan also lists Dallas-Fort Worth as one of six regions where the companies intend to create a purchasing coalition to negotiate lower costs.

Coverage would be offered to part-time, temporary and contract employees as well as early retirees. Those workers make up a growing share of the nearly 44 million uninsured Americans.

“We’re very supportive of this program, we think it’s a good community initiative,” American Airlines spokesman Roger Frizzell said. He noted that the program entails no additional costs for American, which has been working over the past two years to reduce expenses.

Besides addressing a growing social problem, the move saves the companies money. Major employers have reduced the medical benefits they offer as costs have zoomed upward, but now private insurance is absorbing costs from those who cannot afford medical care, essentially sending employers a larger bill.

By reaching out to the uninsured, employers hope to eventually rein in health-care costs, which are climbing nearly 14 percent a year for large companies.