SEIU’s Andy Stern On Improving Health Care Bill: ‘It’s Now Or Never’

Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern sharply criticized politicking and lack of subsidies for lower middle class families in the Senate health care bill but isn’t threatening action against lawmakers he says have let voters down.

Stern told TPMDC in an interview that SEIU members will use the holidays for a last-chance pressure campaign through phone calls and grassroots efforts in members’ home districts. The broader game plan will shape up in the first two weeks of January.

“We’ve really said to people this is your last chance to improve this bill, at least at this moment in history,” Stern said. “It’s now or never.”

He asked why should progressives and union members who were major players in forcing health care to be part of the campaign discussion in 2007 and 2008 should settle for a bill that’s less-than.

“When there is more that can be done that’s reasonable and responsibile you don’t stop fighting,” he said.

But without a clear threat, it’s a continued softening of the critique last week as House Democrats signal they are mostly willing to accept the Senate version of the bill with little more than a surface fight so they can move on.While acknowledging the dramatic reform that is included in the measure, Stern said it can be improved and left it up to members to decide how to approach a bill they think is not good enough once the final plan is drafted. Last week they outlined the differences between the House and Senate bills in a 20,000-member conference call and particularly criticized the affordability provisions in the Senate version.

Stern stopped short of saying SEIU would campaign against a final health care bill or seek political repercussions for being let down, but he repeated what he’s been saying about 2008 election that President Obama and Democratic leaders have “squandered” the gift voters handed to them of a mantra for change.

“Rather than do what they promised we’ve sort of turned the Senate into the ‘Price is Right,'” Stern said, adding that the American people didn’t want to allow senators to be “an army of one.”

“They have not risen to the occasion,” he said.

Improvements SEIU wants to see focus on affordability.

For example, the House measure includes larger subsidies for lower middle class families. A family of 3 that earns $41,000 a year will pay an average of $7,000 a year for health care, or 17% of their income under the Senate bill, $2,134 more than they would pay under the provisions in the House bill, SEIU estimates.

A family of 3 that earns $70,500 a year will pay an average of $12,166 a year in the Senate plan – a figure $1,339 more than the family would pay under the House bill.

SEIU members also believe the Senate version unfairly taxes people who have high cost plans, something that isn’t their fault since they live in places with no competition between insurance companies.

“If people can’t afford the insurance they are being offered this bill, it is not maximizing its possibilities,” Stern said.

Still, Stern, one of the most frequent visitors to the Obama White House this year, said the underlying bill is “a leap forward” and rattled off the administration’s talking points for how it improves the system. Progressives all week have said they will keep fighting, though Congressional leadership believes they will accept the Senate’s more conservative plan.

SEIU provided this background on provisions for part-time workers they want to see included:

Health reform will provide new options for Head Start agencies and employees, but the Senate bill could result in harm to Head Start workers if some critical flaws are not addressed. The Senate “employer responsibility” provisions create an enormous incentive for Head Start agencies and other employers to cut workers’ hours to 29 hours per week, end health insurance coverage, and steer workers to the exchange for coverage, because they will pay nothing for part-time workers and their families who receive coverage in the exchange. While some workers and their families may find affordable, good coverage in the exchange, Head Start agencies will pay little or nothing towards that coverage, and many workers could be worse off.

SEIU strongly recommends the House approach to employer responsibility because it is a “win-win” for both Head Start agencies and workers. Agencies can choose to “play or pay”, paying 8% of average wages for workers to enroll in coverage in the exchange. This is a fair and predictable contribution and will not create an incentive for agencies to cut hours. Head Start agencies and other nonprofit and for-profit employers can choose to continue to offer coverage to full-time workers, while also choosing to pay 8% of average wages for part-time workers to get their coverage in the exchange. This is a fair and workable approach, in contrast to the Senate approach, with its administratively burdensome and complex rules regarding employer responsibility.

Click here for Stern’s statement on the passage of the health care bill in the Senate on Dec. 24.

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