On Health Care Reform

On Health Care Reform

The late Sen. Ted Kennedy was superbly attuned to the concerns of working Americans. Through the years he filtered out the distortions and outright lies about health care reform and remained a steadfast champion of the underserved. He insisted upon quality affordable health care as a right, not a privilege. We will miss him greatly. The senator understood that 53 million Americans have no health care, and 80 percent of them are employed. Within that group, low wage workers face particularly difficult choices for themselves and their families.

Here are the voices of some Long Island workers, voices the senator would have heard so well. Damaris Samolinski knows that the Obama health care reform plan means that health care will be affordable, and it will be there for her and her family, no matter what happens. As a child care provider, taking care of the children of low income parents for the most part, she and others like her, are on their own when it comes to the health care needs of their families. That’s why she became a leader in the campaign to unionize child care providers through CSEA, so they could find a way to purchase affordable health care for their group.

Child care providers are “not asking for anything free,” she told me. She makes too much to qualify for Medicaid; but as a single parent herself, she is hard pressed to pay any medical bills. Proposals such as the public option will allow her group to purchase affordable health care with assistance for low income workers.

Debbie Lipinski is a food service worker in the East Meadow School District and is a member of CSEA. She and her co-workers who work less than seven hours a day are considered ineligible for health care. They have asked to be allowed to buy into the same plan that is provided for the custodians at the group rate, but the district refuses to consider it. “When their husbands get laid off, or if they get divorced, our members are forced to leave the system so they can cover their children,” she explained.

Elsie Chamblee is a home health aide who works 84 hours a week: 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Three years ago she helped SEIU 1199 organize People Care, and they are still fighting for a first contract. She and her co-workers make $7.50 an hour, $11 for Department of Social Services clients. The health care plan the agency is proposing would require employees to pay $80 per week with additional co-pays for dental care. In some cases, for employees with fewer hours, that would be more than their take-home pay. She is active in the union effort to win a first contract. “I’m not doing it for myself; I’m doing it for others who are in a worse situation,” she told me. She knows that contract negotiations will be easier when we get a handle on rising health care costs.

Nonunion retail workers demonstrate perfectly the cruel twist of the American health care system. Paid the minimum wage and without health care, working overtime is a necessity just to make ends meet. But that could raise their income above the Medicaid cut-off and force them to pay medical bills out of pocket. So they sometimes choose to reduce their hours to qualify for public assistance. “I would rather stay sick than go to the emergency room and get a bill I can’t afford,” one of the workers told me. “Either I pay the bill or put food on the table.” She chose to remain anonymous, fearing retribution from her employer.

The time for health care reform is now.

John R. Durso is president of Local 338, RWDSU/UFCW and president of the Long Island Federation of Labor. This article originally appeared in the Long Island Business News, September 3, 2009

September 15, 2009

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