Labor calls for next step in health reform – single-payer coverage

Remarks by AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, National Nurses United Press Conference, America Health Security Act, Washington, DC
May 10, 2011

We in the labor movement have long insisted that health care is a fundamental human right and an important measure of social justice.

And for more than 100 years, we have fought for universal health care coverage based on a social insurance model, an approach that has proven to be cost-effective and efficient in countries across the globe and in this country to provide health security for seniors.

In September of 2009, as Congress debated the Affordable Care Act, the AFL-CIO passed a resolution saying:

Whatever the outcome of the debate over health care reform in the 111th Congress, the task of establishing health care as a human right, not a privilege, will still lie before us.  We continue to believe that the social insurance model should be our goal, and we will continue to fight for reforms that take us in that direction.

I am here today to make good on that commitment and stand in unity with the hundreds of International Association of Machinist brothers and sisters who have come to Washington to deliver a message to Congress that the fight to reform our nation's healthcare system has only just begun.

We are enormously proud of our role in helping to pass the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which was an historic milestone on our path toward a more just society.  But we also know that much work is left to be done.

Two months ago, our executive council pledged to "continue working with Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to introduce legislation that provides a social insurance model for health care reform that is progressively financed and provides a single high standard of comprehensive care for all."

Now that Rep. McDermott and Sen. Sanders have introduced their companion bills, I want to reiterate something else our convention resolution said loud and clear: the single payer approach is one that the AFL-CIO supports and that deserves dedicated congressional support and enactment.  And I want once again to renew the AFL-CIO's longstanding call for congressional leaders to unite behind such a plan.

As our country continues to wrestle with and debate our federal budget priorities, we cannot ignore the experience of other industrialized countries, which shows that the most cost-effective and equitable way to provide quality health care for all is through the social insurance model.

We simply cannot fix our long-term deficits without making our health care system more cost-effective.

Projected long-term budget deficits are driven not by Social Security, nor by the aging of the baby boomers, nor by domestic discretionary spending, as many of the deficit hawks would have us believe.

The truth is, our long-term deficits are driven by health care costs that are projected to grow much faster than the economy—even after the trillions of dollars of deficit reduction achieved by the Affordable Care Act.

The problem is not Medicare and Medicaid in isolation, but rather cost growth in our health care system as a whole. 

Medicare and Medicaid actually hold down health care costs better than private insurance companies do.  And thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Medicare is poised to drive a new revolution in payment and delivery system reforms that promise to lower costs even further.

This point was driven home by the Congressional Budget Office when it analyzed the House Republican budget drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan.  According to CBO, turning Medicare into a privatized voucher system would simply shift health care costs onto our seniors pay, not bring down costs overall.  In fact, vouchers would increase the total price of health care, because private insurance companies are so much less effective than Medicare in containing costs.

Republicans are wrong to say that projected long-term deficits leave us no choice but to shred the social safety net. That's nonsense.  The social insurance model—which Medicare embodies—is the solution, not the problem. 

There is so much that we can do right now to make our health care system more cost-effective without cutting benefits. Medicare could negotiate drug prices, for instance, and allow the importation of prescription drugs, and we could build on the Medicare payment and delivery system reforms in the Affordable Care Act.  The AFL-CIO supports every one of these proposals, while Republicans in the House and Senate oppose them all.  We will have to fight for each one of them, and we will.

But if we want to truly and successfully hold down costs without sacrificing health care, we must do more.  We must move towards the social insurance model, and that is what the American Health Security Act will do. The AFL-CIO applauds Senator Sanders and Rep McDermott for introducing their single payer bills and we look forward to working with them to make a single high standard of health care the right of all Americans.

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