2014 Health Care Justice Leadership Gala Announced

Each year the Metro New York Health Care for All Campaign sponsors the Annual Health Care Justice Leadership Gala.  The event salutes leadership in the fields of public service, trade unionism, and community advocacy, and features a special keynote speaker who frames the current moment in the struggle for health care justice in New York and America.

This year, the following groups and individuals will be recognized:

Assemblymember Annette Robinson who has represented the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn since 2002.  She chairs the Banking Committee, and serves on the Aging, Children and Families, Housing, Small Business, Oversight, Analysis and Investigation, and Real Property Taxation Committees.  Previously, she served in the New York City Council.  In recent years, she has provided key leadership in bringing public officials in Brooklyn together to preserve Interfaith Medical Center, one of our city’s foremost community safety net hospitals, and to develop a creative solution for the Center’s future.

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The Healthcare Education Project which is a joint program of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and the Greater New York Hospital Association.  Its mission is to protect and expand  access to quality, affordable healthcare for all New Yorkers through community education, advocacy, and coalition building.  Launched in the late 1990s, the Project works in partnership with individuals, healthcare providers, and civic and religious leaders in local neighborhoods across New York.  In recent years, they spearheaded Regional Enrollment Summits across New York State, in collaboration with Health Care for All New York, and undertook door-to-door canvasses in low-income communities to identify uninsured New Yorkers and direct them to in-person enrollers.

The Coalition to Transform Interfaith which is a community-labor-faith collaboration to protect and expand health care in Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of our city’s low-income communities with many uninsured.  To date, they have successfully kept Interfaith Medical Center in operation, and are now spearheading an innovative effort to re-establish the Center’s viability into the future.  They are striving to reorganize Interfaith as a “co-operative” jointly operated by the staff, patients, and community leaders.

This year’s Gala will be held on Monday evening, November 17 at District Council 1707 of AFSCME, 420 West 45th Street (bet. 9th & 10th Aves.) in Manhattan.  An informal reception will begin at 6 p.m., followed by the presentation of the awards.  The keynote speaker will be James Knickman, President and CEO of the New York State Health Foundation.

 The Gala is a fundraiser for the Metro New York Health Care for All Campaign.  The suggested contribution for individuals is $75, although all are welcome whatever they can donate.

Organizations and unions can support the Gala by joining the Host Committee, placing an announcement in the Commemorative Journal, or reserving groups of tickets.  Contact us directly for more information on these options.  The deadline for commitments for the Host Committee and placing journal announcements is Friday, November 7.

 

Health Professionals, Unions, and Advocates to Join Forces for Historic Climate Change March in New York City

On Sunday, Sept. 21, the streets of Manhattan will be filled with tens of thousands of people participating in the People’s Climate March, and health care justice advocates will be there too!  The march is being held in advance of a special United Nations session on Climate Change that will immediately precede the organization’s annual meeting of its General Assembly.  Organizers are hoping that the march will be on the magnitude of the 2003 march against war in Iraq and the anti-nuclear march of 1981, each of which drew very large crowds (in the hundreds of thousands.)

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The march will be organized in six sections, each with its own “theme”.  The health contingent will be at the head of the second section, whose theme is “We Can Build the Future.”  We’ll be directly following the trade union contingent, and right behind the major health care unions such as 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the New York State Nurses Association, and others.  The section will form up along Central Park West above Columbus Circle from W. 66 to 72nd Streets.  Participants will be able to enter from W. 72nd St., and are urged to arrive between 10-11 a.m., as the march will step off starting around 11:30.  Large crowds are expected, so people are urged to arrive early.  When you enter the section, walk toward the front to find the health groups.

Prior to the march, a special press conference focusing on climate change and health will be held at 9:30 a.m. outside Roosevelt Hospital, located at 59th St. and 10th Avenue in Manhattan.  Those scheduled to speak include Oliver Fein, MD (Professor, Weill Medical College, Cornell Univ.), Erica Frank, MD, Professor, University of British Columbia), Robert Gould, MD (President, Physicians for Social Responsibility), Corey Johnson (Chair, NYC Council Health Committee), Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, RN (President, NYS Nurses Assoc.), Susan Spieler, PhD (Director of Continuing Education, Training Institute for Mental Health), and Catherine Thomasson, MD (Exec. Dir., Physicians for Social Responsibility).

Some of the groups involved in organizing the health contingent include (in alpha order) ACT UP/New York, Alliance of Nurses for a Healthy Environment, Climate 911, Healthcare Now NYC, International Transformational Resilience Coalition, NYS Nurses Association, Metro NY Health Care for All Campaign, Physicians for a National Health Program, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Psychologists for Social Responsibility, and the U.S. Climate and Health Alliance, among others.

Full information on the Public Health contingent can be found here.

General information on the march overall can be found here.

“Regional Enrollment Summits” Announced Across New York for this Fall

During the first open enrollment period for new health insurance plans available under the Affordable Care Act nearly 1 million New Yorkers signed up for coverage, and over 80% of them were previously uninsured.  That’s great news, and a good advance on lowering New York’s number of uninsured (previously, 2.5 million in 2013.)  For a full report on New York’s success, click here.

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The next open enrollment period begins on this coming November 15th and runs until February 15th.  It will be our next opportunity to sign-up those who are still-uninsured for coverage.  To help everyone get ready for it, advocates and our allies have joined forces to plan a series of “Regional Enrollment Summits” across the state, to bring all stakeholders together to assess what happened previously, and plan for the coming fall and winter.

These events will bring together community leaders and stakeholders to review the first year of outreach and enrollment for health insurance coverage available through New York State of Health, our state’s new health insurance marketplace. Health advocacy groups, navigators, community groups, health care facilities, unions, health plans, and small business representatives are all encouraged to attend.

In our area, two summits will be held in New York City and one on Long Island.  (There may also be one added in the Lower Hudson Valley – watch for further details.)  If your organization or union is focusing on outreach to uninsured New Yorkers and/or helping them to enroll in coverage, we invite you to attend one of them.

Here’s the details about the NYC are summits:

  • Mon. Sept. 22, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. – Long Island Summit; at 1199SEIU, 100 Duffy Avenue, Suite 3W, in Hicksville (adjacent to the LIRR train station); registration Luis.Valenzuela@1199funds.org (by Sept. 18)
  • Tues. Sept. 30, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. – Brooklyn-Queens-Staten Island Summit; at York College, Faculty Dining Room, 94-20 Guy R. Brewer Boulevard (south of Archer Ave.), in Jamaica; registration Marcelle.Dinnall@1199funds.org (by Sept. 28)

The agenda for the summits will include:

  • Presentation by “New York State  of Health”, our state’s online health insurance marketplace
  • Panel discussion by groups doing public outreach and enrollment activities
  • Discussion groups to plan share best practices and lessons learned, and plan for the future.

Additional summits across our state include:

  • Fri. Sept. 12, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. – Capital District Summit; at 1199SEIU, 155 Washington Ave., in Albany; registration saracouchwalden@gmail.com
  • Tues. Sep. 30, 1 to 4:30 p.m. – Central New York Summit; at Southern Tier Independence Center, 135 E. Frederick St, in Binghamton; register sarah.lourdes.lister@gmail.com
  • Thurs. Oct. 2, 9 a.m. to 12 noon – Western New York Summit; at 1199SEIU, 2421 Main Street, in Buffalo; register hepbuffalo@gmail.com

Sponsoring groups for the summits include Citizen Action of New York, Community Health Care Association of New York State, Community Service Society of New York, Healthcare Education Project of 1199SEIU/GNYHA, Health Care for All New York, and Raising Women’s Voices-New York.  Additional co-sponsors for each local summit will be solicited.

New Yorkers to Celebrate that “Social Security Works!”

This summer has marks the 49th anniversary of the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid, and the 79th anniversary of Social Security.  All of these programs are all of a piece, and together comprise the bedrock of our nation’s ever-evolving and expanding historic social contract, which most recently added the Affordable Care Act to its scope.  In terms of advocacy, when we support any one of these programs, we support them all, as they are intricately linked to each other, particularly in the minds of the public and voters.

Soc Sec card

With that in mind, health care advocates are joining with senior citizens, disability rights advocates, and union retirees to celebrate the 79th anniversary signing of the Social Security Act by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  This coming Thursday, August 14, we’ll all be gathering that morning at 11 a.m. outside the NYC District office of the Social Security Administration (SSA), located in Jamaica, Queens, the busiest Social Security office in the country, located at 155-10 Jamaica Avenue (at Parsons Ave.)  (See our action alert invite here, with all the details.)

We’ll be talking about what Social Security means for New York.  About 3.5 million New Yorkers and their families receive benefits from Social Security, including 1.1 million in New York City.  Statewide, beneficiaries include 2.3 million retirees, 520,000 people with disabilities, 421,000 surviving spouses, and 258,000 children.  The program also pumps over $50 billion annually into New York’s economy, and together with Medicare, keeps 1.2 million New Yorkers out of poverty.  (You can read the latest report from Social Security Works about all the ways New Yorkers benefit from it.)

We’ll also be refuting some of the BIG LIES that opponents of government social programs like to tell.  Social Security is NOT going broke!  In fact, it is fully solvent for another 20 years.  Also, Social Security has not contributed one penny to the federal budget deficit.  It has its own Trust Fund that is funded by a dedicated tax from contributions taken out of every workers’ paycheck.

We’ll be calling on Congress to rectify the crisis of recent local Social Security office closures and in-person service cutbacks resulting from budget cuts.  Since 2011, seven local Social Security Administration offices across New York City have been closed because of budget cutbacks, including in Astoria, Chinatown, East New York, Glendale, Midtown Manhattan, South Bronx, and Williamsburg.  Meanwhile, the number of people on Social Security will double in the next 20 years.  In addition, the Social Security Administration is shifting some services solely to online modalities, creating barriers to necessary services for New Yorkers who are not internet literate or do not have regular internet access.  New York’s Senator Charles Schumer has recently introduced a bill to address this problem (S.2742), and a similar bill (H.R.3997) has been introduced in the House by Rep. Brian Higgins of Buffalo.

There are also bills in Congress to improve and expand Social Security:

  • The “Strengthen Social Security Act” (S.567, H.R.3118), introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Linda Sanchez would raise the minimum base benefit, remove the cap on income subject to FICA taxes so that the wealthy pay their fair share just like the rest of us, and change the basis of the formula used to calculate the annual cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) to more accurately reflect the spending needs of older people and people with disabilities, particularly when it comes to health care.  (You can read the ARA fact sheet here.)
  • The Retirement and Income Security Enhancement (RAISE) Act (S.2455), introduced by Senators Mark Begich and Patty Murray, would enhance Social Security benefits for widow(er)s and divorced spouses while extending benefit eligibility for children of retired, disabled, and deceased workers.  (You can read the ARA Fact Sheet here.)

We are collaborating on this event with the Alliance for Retired Americans (ARA), and Local 3369 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) which represents SSA workers at that office. AFGE’s “Save Our Social Security” campaign is encouraging their members to resist office closures and in-person service cutbacks.

Our event here in NYC will be part of several similar events taking place across New York State being organized by the Restore the American Promise (RAP) campaign.  Additional events will be taking place across the country, coordinated by ARA, AFGE, and Social Security Works.  We’ll be having party hats and cupcakes, and have invited some local members of Congress from the Queens too.  Please join us! 

Consumer Advocates Take on Big Insurance-PBM Alliance During Final Days of State Legislative Session

David v Goliath (Gebhard Fugel)

They’re at it again!  (Actually, do they ever stop?)

Three years ago, the State Legislature and Governor Cuomo enacted a law guaranteeing New Yorkers the right to receive our prescription drugs either by mail order delivery or from a local community pharmacy.  However, the insurance companies and their “pharmacy benefit manager” (PBM) pals have exploited a minor provision of that law to continue to deny consumers that right to choose.  Instead, insurers are forcing patients to use mail order only, especially for so-called “specialty drugs” (often arbitrary defined as anything costing more than $250 for a month’s supply.)  They’re also imposing onerous and ridiculous terms and conditions on community pharmacies in order to certify them as in-network.

Mail order works fine for many people.  It can be convenient and save money.  However, there can also be problems for people when packages don’t arrive on time, they get lost in the mail, they get left with neighbors (thereby violating patients’ privacy), or they get left on doorsteps and then are stolen, among other difficulties.  In such circumstances, patients then have to pay full cost for a replacement, which can often be hundreds or thousands of dollars.  In some cases, their health and well-being can be placed in jeopardy if they miss doses of maintenance drugs.

Many people prefer to use a local community pharmacy instead where they can pick up their medicines at a convenient time and not miss refills.  They also prefer to consult directly with a local professional pharmacist who has a record of all their medicines on file (often prescribed by different providers) to watch out for any complications and contraindications.  They prefer this option rather than have to deal with an often minimally-trained customer service agent at the end of a phone line far away who simply reads off a boilerplate script.

Why are insurers doing this?

Simple:  follow the money.  Many of the big PBMs are wholly-owned subsidiaries of insurance companies.  Others have sweetheart deals with them.  By denying us this right to choose, insurers and PBMs are cornering and gaming the market, and trying to put our local drugs stores out of business.

The good news:

There’s a bill in the State Legislature to restore our right to choose and eliminate insurers’ outrageous terms and conditions they want to impose on local drug stores.  This bill won’t drive up drug prices or insurance premiums at all, provided consumers use an in-network pharmacy.  There’s wide, bipartisan support for this bill, and it has already passed the Assembly unanimously.

The challenge:

The bill is now hung-up in the Senate because the chair of the Insurance Committee (Sen. James Seward of Oneonta) won’t let it out for a floor vote.  He’s parroting the industry’s specious claims that community pharmacists can’t be trusted to dispense specialty drugs (despite the fact that they’ve been handling them for years.)

How the Legislative Battle is Proceeding:

The insurance and PBM industry is running radio ads, putting up billboards, and placing ads in newspapers across the state, claiming that this bill will create a new “prescription drug tax”, raise insurance premiums, threaten patient safety, and undermine the mail-order drug business.  In particular, they are scaring seniors that their drug costs will go up.

In response, New Yorkers for Accessible Health Coverage (a statewide coalition of chronic illness and disability groups) has been joined by Gay Men’s Health Crisis, NYS Bleeding Disorders Coalition, the MS Society, Consumers’ Union, the Lupus Foundation, the Pharmacists Society of the State of NY, and the Coalition of Community and Chain Store Pharmacies.  Together, they are saying to state lawmakers, “Do it again, just like you did three years ago, but close the loophole this time.  Make sure New Yorkers maintain our right to choose how we get our medicines.”

The 2014 Legislative Session ends by this coming Friday, June 20.  Advocates are hoping that, given the broad support among rank-and-file Senators, Senate leadership will take the bill to the floor for a vote despite Senator Seward’s opposition.

What you can do: read our Action Alert here.

NYC Health Advocates Announce City Budget Agenda for 2014

Members of the People’s Budget Coalition for Public Health gathered for a press conference on the steps of City Hall on May 13th to respond to Mayor de Blasio’s recently-released budget for the city’s coming fiscal year and urge that the City Council build on it to address additional unmet needs of New Yorkers. They laid out broad priorities to guide the Mayor and Council as they now enter into negotiations, to be concluded by the end of June. PBC’s priorities include: community-based health planning, addressing health disparities, expanding the health care safety net, and investing in the city’s municipal hospital and public health system.

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“The Executive Budget takes many steps in the right direction, but needs to do more to address the social determinants of health and disparities; and create a health care system rooted in our neighborhoods and communities,” said Anthony Feliciano, Director of the Commission on the Public’s Health System, “A successful health care system results from a prescription that includes access, quality, services, fairness, equity, and community. If one element is missing, the prescription does not work. Over the years, too many communities have been consistently left out of planning, or left with substandard care, or no care at all. Often the factors in determining those left behind are income, race, ethnicity, immigration status, disability status, gender identity, primary language, and sexual orientation. We know the Mayor and Council understand this reality, and urge them to support some of our health priorities to address these problems.”

“We commend Mayor de Blasio and Health Commissioner Mary Bassett for prioritizing public health activities aimed at communities that have the disproportionate share of physical and mental illness and premature death,” said Esther W. Y. Lok, Assistant Director of Policy, Advocacy and Research from the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. “Engaging local residents, community and faith leaders, institutions, unions, and elected officials in the planning process is essential to the expansion of public health initiatives,”

As New York State implements the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and a recently-approved $8 billion dollar Medicaid Waiver, PBC members said it is critical that the City maintains and strengthens a public health care infrastructure that ensures continuous, high quality care delivery to those who are newly-insured as well as those left uninsured. Even with the leveling benefits of federal health reform, many New Yorkers and their communities continue to face disparities in access, distribution, and coordination of health resources.

The group called for the creation of a new “Access Health NYC” program, to provide city funding to community-based organizations to help connect uninsured people to new coverage options and/or access to services.

“While New York has done very well enrolling uninsured people into new coverage options available under the Affordable Care Act, we know there are still hundreds of thousands of uninsured across our city who still haven’t done so,” said Mark Hannay, Director of the Metro New York Health Care for All Campaign. “On-the-ground community-based organizations are the key to engaging hard-to-reach populations, and they need the resources to go out there and find the still uninsured, inform them about the law, and get them enrolled in coverage, all in culturally appropriate ways. Unfortunately, the state government chose not to fund community outreach programs, so this is an important gap that our city government can fill to make sure that all New Yorkers get health insurance.”

“Collaborative and culturally appropriate outreach services that connect people with care are very important”, said Suki Terada Ports, Vice President of the Japanese American Association of New York, “In an example of historic significance, Korean and Japanese not-for-profits worked together to enable people of Japanese ancestry to obtain health insurance. Korean Community Services stepped up to the plate to help educate and enroll limited English speaking people in New York and New Jersey because neither state had arranged for a Navigator who spoke Japanese.”

“We urge the administration to remember that the Affordable Care Act left health care reform incomplete for New York City’s undocumented residents,” said Jackie Vimo, Policy Director for the New York Immigration Coalition. “New York City immigrants and their families have options that they may not know about including services through NYC’s Health and Hospitals Corporation facilities, federally qualified health centers, and Emergency Medicaid. We look forward to working with the administration to educate immigrants in New York City about services and programs that are available to them and to crafting a durable policy solution to facilitate health care access for all New York City residents.”

“We are grateful that the Mayor’s budget outlines progressive health measures. However, more needs to be done to address health inequities and disparities,” said Noilyn Abesamis-Mendoza, Health Policy Director for the Coalition for Asian American Children & Families. “Initiatives such as Access Health NYC would greatly expand health access and services to various communities in a culturally- and linguistically-competent manner, while improved community health planning will ensure that those on the receiving end of health programs have greater agency and self-determination of healthcare resources.

The group also called for budget provisions to grow public health care infrastructure from the communities it serves. They said New York’s health system must serve all New Yorkers; enabling everyone to receive high quality, accessible health care services in their own neighborhoods. PBC called for the Mayor and City Council to put forward a vision for public health that is rooted in community input, addresses health disparities facing New York’s more marginalized neighborhoods through the stabilization of the safety net, and further builds and expands the city’s current public health infrastructure and workforce.

“Being an individual who has worked in Federal, State, City and Privately-Funded Health and Human Services programs, it is glaringly obvious that there needs to be an even larger increase in local control over, and participation in, the decisions around health care resources and public health issues,” said Stephen Beasley, Program Coordinator for CAMBA/Greater Brooklyn Health Coalition.

“Thanks in large part to the inclusive approach of Mayor de Blasio toward our safety-net hospitals and the diligent work of healthcare advocates across the City, New York has the opportunity with this year’s budget to address health disparities that have long plagued struggling New Yorkers and focus on meaningful quality improvement measures that matter to our patients and communities,” said Dr. Matthews Hurley, Vice President of Doctors Council SEIU. “We are proud to stand with our partners in the People’s Budget Coalition and look forward to working with health care professionals, community members, patients and Mayor de Blasio to ensure New York City is the best provider of care to our loved ones.”

“New York Health” Advocates Converge on Albany to Promote Universal Health Care for New York

Over 200 members and allies of the “New York Health” campaign held their annual legislative advocacy day on May 6, to push for a vote on the bill in the Assembly before the end they adjourn in late June.  The bill, sponsored by Assembly Health Committee chair Richard Gottfried of the Chelsea-Hell’s Kitchen area (A. 5389A) and Senator Bill Perkins of Harlem (S. 2078A), has 72 co-sponsors in the Assembly and 18 co-sponsors in the Senate to date, and  61 organizations and trade unions have endorsed it.

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Participants in the advocacy day made over visits to 81 members of the Legislature to ask for support for the bill, and to answer questions legislators and their staff.  In particular, they pushed for Assemblymembers to sign-on to a letter to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, and for those who’ve not yet endorsed the bill in either house to do so.

During the lunch hour, a rally was held in the park outside the Capitol that garnered significant media coverage.  In addition to Assemblymember Gottfried and Senator Perkins, speakers included Dr. Matthew Hurley from Doctors’ Council SEIU, Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez from the New York State Nurses Association, Michael Milligan, author and actor in “Mercy Killers”, a one-man show about health care in America that has toured nationally in numerous cities, and Helen Shaub from 1199 United Healthcare Workers East.

The New York Health proposal would create a fully public health insurance program covering all New York residents.  Everyone would be eligible to enroll, regardless of age, income, wealth, employment, or other status. The benefits would include comprehensive outpatient and inpatient medical care, primary and preventive care, prescription drugs, laboratory tests, rehabilitation, dentistry, vision care, and hearing care. Everyone would choose a primary care practitioner or other provider to provide care coordination who would help to get the care and follow-up the patient needs, referrals, and navigating the system.  However, there would be no “gatekeeper” obstacles to care.  Long-term-care coverage is not included at the start, but the bill requires that the Board develop a plan for it within five years of implementation.

Health coverage provided through the program would be publicly funded.  Health care would no longer be paid for by insurance companies charging premiums, deductibles and co-pays that are not set according to ability to pay. Instead, New York Health would be paid for by assessments based on ability to pay, through a progressively graduated state payroll tax (paid 80% by employers and 20% by employees, and 100% by self-employed) and a surcharge on other income and placed into a dedicated New York Health Trust Fund. The current federal funds now received by the state for Medicaid, Child Health Plus, and the Affordable Care Act could also be added in, along with Medicare funding.  A broadly representative Board of Trustees would advise the Commissioner of Health on the program.  The “local share” of Medicaid funding —a major burden on local property taxes— would be ended.

Health care providers, including those providing care coordination, would be paid in full by New York Health, with no co-pays or other charges to patients. The program would develop alternative payment methods to replace old-style fee-for-service (which rewards volume but not quality), and would negotiate rates with health care provider organizations and practitioners. (Fee-for-service would continue until new methods are phased in.)

 

What to Do for the “Still Uninsured”? “New York Health” Offers a Path Forward in the Longer-Term

While nearly a million New Yorkers enrolled in coverage via the state’s new “New York State of Health” health benefits exchange marketplace during the recently completed “open enrollment” period that ended on April 15 (approximately 70% of whom were formerly uninsured), that still leaves 1.5 million New Yorkers without coverage in place.  “Anytime enrollment” is still possible for adults eligible for Medicaid (up to 138% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), approximately $15,000 for an individual, or $42,000 for a family of four), for children living in families up to 400% FPL (approximately $92,000 for a family of four), and for individuals and families who experience a special life event that qualifies them for a 60-day “special enrollment period” (see full list at www.nystateofhealth.ny.gov.)  And of course, the next general open enrollment period will begin on Nov. 15th.

What do we do about the still uninsured until then?

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In the short-term, we can refer them to the various safety net providers in our communities, such as public hospitals, community health centers, and other such entities.  And we’ll need to support those entities from any funding cuts, and ideally push to beef them up so they can adequately address the task at hand.

In the longer term of course, projections from the Congressional Budget Office when the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was enacted 4 years ago indicated that the ACA would only cover about 30+ million nationwide of the country’s 50 million uninsured.  The ACA only goes so far.

For those who get coverage under the ACA, major problems need to be addressed.  These include making the coverage much more affordable to use concerning deductibles and co-pays, particularly for those of modest income just above Medicaid eligibility, and broadening out the very narrow provider networks that many plans have, which also could include the ability to go out-of-network when needed.

All that may be well and good enough in the short term.  However, what can we do in the longer term to bring true universal health care to New York and America?  The ACA has a solution for that too.

Starting in 2017, options become available to states to “go a different way” from the ACA as long as they meet the overall coverage goals of the law.  (After all, the ACA is a floor, not a ceiling, for states.)  This opportunity offers states the possibility of moving toward fully universal insurance programs that would cover all residents.  Vermont is pursuing such an approach from the start as it implements the ACA, moving toward a public-administered, publicly-funded program under a “single-payer” approach.

The “New York Health” bill here in New York (A. 5389-A / S. 2078-A), sponsored by Assembly Health Committee chair Richard Gottfried and Senator Bill Perkins, is modeled on the Vermont approach, adapted to the specifics of our state’s insurance system.  Advocates for this bill are pushing hard to obtain additional co-sponsors for it in both houses of the Legislature, and are hoping for a one-house vote in the Assembly before the end of this year’s session in late June.

 

NYC Labor Officials Gather for Second “Union Healthcare Summit”; Needed Fixes to Affordable Care Act and “New York Health” Bill Main Topics of Presentations and Discussion

Following up on its successful Union Healthcare Summit in late February (see post of February 26, 2014 below), Labor Press convened a follow-up meeting to further dig into the two major topics that emerged at the first event:  provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that threaten the long-term viability of union benefit and “Taft-Hartley” funds, and moving toward a “single-payer” approach to health coverage here in New York.  Featured speakers included:  Gemma DeLeon, Executive Vice-President of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union; Ben Johnson, President of the American Federation of Teachers of Vermont; James McGee, Executive Director of the Transit Employees Health and Welfare Fund of the ATU Local in Washington, DC; and Richard Gottfried, Chair of the Health Committee in the New York State Assembly.

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The event began with some framing questions posed by moderator Gene Carroll, Co-Director of the New York State AFL-CIO/Cornell Union Leadership Institute:

  • How are organized labor’s world and their industries changing with regard to health care?
  • What are the impacts of these changes on union members, the yet-to-be-organized, and beyond unions per se into the larger community and society?
  • What are the implications of these changes, and what is their trajectory?
  • How can organized labor imagine reconstituting and reasserting its power in the context of health care reform?  (For example, collective bargaining for the whole community, state, or nation.)
  • What can be done differently to meet the identified challenges?
  • How can unions better align themselves internally on health care matters, between the concerns of health and welfare funds, collective bargaining goals, political and policy positions, and rank-and-file members’ concerns?

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Mr. McGee began the formal presentations talking about his own personal education and “journey” (as he termed it) on health care issues, beginning with his days as a rank-and-file member in Pennsylvania to the present day.  He described how those crafting comprehensive health care reform legislation in Congress during 2009-10 (the product of which was the ACA) ignored looking at Taft-Hartley/multi-employer union-management health plans as a model for national reform for employment-sponsored coverage, which he characterized as a major error.  He stressed the importance of the principle of “solidarity” that these plans exemplify within a group of workers, and the concept of “pay while you work, so it’s there when you don’t.”

Mr. McGee described the ACA as simultaneously a step forward in major ways concerning new rules and requirements for insurers and plans, a step backward in other ways that undermines employment-based/related coverage, and an opportunity to be seized to reform how best to provide health care coverage to all.  In relation to union-based coverage, he asserted that the future of health care benefits no longer exclusively centered around the bargaining table, but rather within the halls of government as a new central player.  A major opportunity he identified coming out of the ACA was to move away from piecemeal fee-for-service toward other, more global methods of provider reimbursement.  He also said that the ACA offered states the ability to move toward fully-public “single-payer” universal health care systems that could be modeled on multi-employer plans.  Such a program could restore the important goals of continuity and affordability of coverage, regardless of employment circumstance, and reinforce the principle of solidarity writ large.

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Mr. Johnson discussed developments in Vermont where the state government is moving to use the ACA to establish a fully-public program covering all residents of the state starting in 2017, when federal waivers become available to states to move beyond the ACA per se.  He began by describing the political constellation that came to pass that made such progress possible, and how union and progressive political activists leveraged the opportunity during the 2010 election for governor in that state to set the stage for 2011.  They also used advances in organizing large numbers of home care and child care workers to advance the issue.

Since 2011 when the state passed general legislation committing itself to pursuing this forward-thinking approach, Mr. Johnson described labor supporters as pursuing two different organizing phases.  First up has been what he called the “inoculation” phase where leaders directly engaged their members on the issue in a frank and candid way, and discussed the possible outcomes of the eventual “legislative sausage-making” process of crafting the eventual program.  He reported how they discussed that there could, and likely would, be some changes and diminutions of coverage compared to what members currently have, to assess whether or not everyone would be on-board with the effort for the long-haul.  The response was affirmative.

The second phase he described as “make it happen”, currently underway.  During it, he said the choices for labor and their allies have been: 1) universal health care yes, 2) universal health care no, and 3) universal health care how.  He cautioned against focusing on the third path at the outset, as that merely creates fodder for opponents to use, and instead urged proponents of universal health care to keep one’s “eyes on the prize” overall.  He noted that many will want to immediately focus on the myriad policy details to be worked through, but that important as they will eventually be, doing so at the outset, beyond the broad strokes, diverts from the task at hand to build the broad public support that will be necessary to withstand propaganda and fear-tactics from opponents.

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In her remarks, Ms. DeLeon directly addressed problems organized labor has with various aspects of the ACA.  She noted that unions’ experience with the law is not monolithic, that different unions and union sectors are facing different challenges coming from it, but that all shared the overall ideal of comprehensive, affordable, and continuous coverage for all their workers and their families.  While she said the ACA is well-intentioned with many positive aspects for millions of Americans, there were also serious unintended consequences, especially for workers in low-wage jobs and industries.  She described new trends of employers shifting workers to part-time so as to avoid various aspects of the ACA, such as offering coverage altogether thereby forcing their workers to use new state health benefits exchanges where the coverage may not be as good or as affordable than what they are losing.  Other employer trends include dropping dependent coverage, instituting very high deductibles, and narrowing their provider networks.

In the immediate-term, she called for fixing, not destroying, the ACA, and to avoid inadvertently allying with right-wing forces who are out to repeal it.  In the longer-term, she said labor’s full support for a fully-public national health insurance program, while perhaps the ideal goal, would be a long, slow, and painful for organized labor because of all the uncertainties that still have to fully play out concerning the ACA, and the uncertainties of moving to this alternative.  However, she noted that under such a program, unions could still attract workers within organizing drives for representation, working conditions, and other benefits and wrap-around health coverage, as is the case in other western countries.

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The panel concluded with remarks by Assemblymember Gottfried, who represents the Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen areas of Manhattan.  He discussed the “New York Health” bill he authored and is sponsoring with State Senator Bill Perkins, who represents Harlem.  This bill would have New York institute a fully-public universal program similar to what Vermont is pursuing.  He described the bill’s approach as one of guaranteeing comprehensive insurance coverage for all New Yorkers based on “ability to pay”.  He characterized current efforts to reform health care delivery and payment under the ACA and in other efforts by employers, other stakeholders, and state government as a mixed bag, with outcomes dependent on who designs and administers the reforms, and to whose benefit they are designed to accrue.  He said that, fundamentally, reform of any type must be publicly accountable via government.

He described the ACA as shifting the burden of health care provision onto individuals which he said actually undermines the ability of patients to control and take responsibility for their own health care.  He said that ultimately access to health care was a governmental and public responsibility, as embodied in the New York Health bill, and that it would be a much better approach for both patients and health care providers.  He also said that New York’s government, despite its flaws, has a better political climate than the national government in Washington to move forward on health care.

New York Human Service and Labor Activist Leaders Gather to Map Out Joint Efforts for 2014; “Going on the Offense” is Major Theme

Now that the state budget process has concluded for 2014 and the Easter-Passover holidays have passed, progressive political activists of various stripes gathered in Albany on April 30 to share updates and plan mutual strategies through this year.  The gathering, dubbed “Going on the Offense for an America and New York that Works for All of Us”, was jointly sponsored by the Restore the American Promise (RAP) campaign and the All of Us campaign.  Both are two statewide efforts focusing on budget advocacy at the federal and state levels as they affect health, human service, and workers’ rights issues.

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The meeting began with some background on each campaign.  RAP was launched in 2011, initially to protect major national social programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Food Stamps during the federal debt ceiling fight of that summer.  Since then, it has broadened its agenda to include related strategic issues such as restoring tax fairness, promoting economic recovery and job growth, and countering an overall “politics of austerity” that has dominated much of American politics since the advent of the Great Recession.  The All of Us campaign was launched in the Spring of 2013 in response to political gridlock in the New York State Senate that stopped many major progressive issues from being taken up in the final days of the legislative session.  The gridlock was attributed to special interest dominance that reflected the priorities of the wealthy elite and well-resourced corporate interests, in contrast to the needs and concerns of the vast majority of everyday New Yorkers.

Next, briefings were given on pro-active campaigns underway for 2014, both nationally and across New York, addressing Social Security, health care programs, safety net social programs, economic and income equality efforts, tax fairness, and immigration reform.  Speakers included: Eric Kingson, National Co-Director of Social Security Works; Mark Hannay, Director of the Metro New York Health Care for All Campaign; Heidi Siegfried, board member of the Hunger Action Network of New York State; Emily Goldstein, Organizer with the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN); Amy DeJardins, Field Director for the New York State AFL-CIO; Bessie Schachter, Program Director of the New York State Immigrant Action Fund; and Ron Deutsch, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness.

Keynote speaker over lunch was Richard Kirsch, Senior Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute and a Senior Advisor with US Action, who spoke on “Messaging Our Campaigns Together.”  Focusing on the theme of “Works for All of Us”, he modeled how to speak to the general public, progressive base voters, and persuadable voters about seemingly disparate issues.  He combined them under broad rubrics of economy, government, democracy, and nationality.  He stressed the importance of focusing on shared values rather than spouting statistics and policy ideology, and of drawing contrasts between the larger whole vs. exclusive constituencies, and between sweetheart deals vs. common benefits and shared needs.

Following lunch, participants were briefed by Jess Wisneski (Legislative Campaigns Director for Citizen Action of New York) and Mike Kink (Executive Director of Strong Economy for All) on key Congressional and State Senate districts across New York where incumbents are crucial for moving progressive issues forward this year and next, and how things are shaping up in those districts for this fall’s midterm elections.  Important Congressional districts are on Long Island, Staten Island, the Hudson Valley, the North Country, Central New York, and the Southern Tier.  Strategic State Senate districts were identified on Long Island, in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, in the Hudson Valley, the Capital District, Central New York, Rochester, and Buffalo.  They stressed the importance of reaching out to the public in these districts to engage them on our shared values and issues, and the importance of this year’s elections since voter turnout is often lower during off-year elections.

Participants were next briefed on upcoming strategic moments and periods during the spring, summer, and fall when it will be opportune to engage lawmakers, the public, and the media.  They then broke up into regional workgroups to discuss all that had been shared in the meeting, and to begin to plan activities in their local areas.