News & Politics

A Diagnosis for America's Healthcare Woes

General Motors' employee coverage cuts help illustrate an important point: the global economy is a tool to drive down living standards.
It is a measure of our lowered expectations, fueled by media spin, that people shrugged and seemed to think that it was inevitable that workers for General Motors were destined to have their health care coverage slashed.

After all, some seemed to think, at a time when their company is teetering on the edge of oblivion, these "privileged" auto workers had "gold-plated" coverage that almost no other workers in America have.

But let’s be clear: The loss of benefits for GM workers was not inevitable. It happened as a result of many years of bipartisan political and economic decisions and the bipartisan lack of political courage to take on dumb ideology and corporate power.

In the minds of the elites, socking workers with a larger share of the costs of health care is just a natural part of the new economic order. As the Wall Street Journal editorial board said about the health care cost-cutting deal between GM and the United Auto Workers, "We hope it’s the beginning of wisdom about the global economy for the American labor movement."

Speaking about UAW president Ron Gettelfinger, Delphi CEO Steve Miller—who took his company into bankruptcy—said, "He’s going to have to help half a million of workers get used to the idea that globalization has taken away the ability to have someone who mows the lawn or sweeps the floor get $65 an hour."

At least one thing is refreshing: It exposes as a fraud the liberal and conservative mantra about the wonders of the global economy. Democrats and Republicans alike—from Bill Clinton to George Bush, with a supporting cast of media and academic geniuses—have repeatedly told workers that the global economy will bring great benefits to America, after a period of "adjustment." To their credit, Steve Miller and the Journal are more honest: The global economy is a tool to drive down living standards, starting with health care. Get with it, folks: Living large is so "old economy."

So, the first obvious point to make is that employer-provided health care coverage has failed. Workers should never face the choice between sickness and financial ruin simply because the company they work for is going under, poorly managed or because they change jobs. More important, this has become, as I pointed out some months ago, a matter of economic competitiveness for corporations based in the United States: The health care system is dragging down profits.

The second point, then, is that health insurance can never be left to those whose sole motivation is profit. The last time health care was debated, the Clinton administration lost its nerve—or, perhaps, never had any other intention to pursue a system other than one that was destined to perpetuate the existing ideological flaws. "Hillarycare" was a disaster for the public not because the mismanaged process produced an overly complex system. Rather, the Clintons made a conscious decision to leave health care in the hands of the private insurers—which allowed the HMO industry to grow, if you'll pardon the expression, like a malignant tumor.

If we had a different philosophy, GM workers’ health care would never change. As Ida Hellander, executive director of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), puts it, "Political will is infinitely harder to muster, especially when Congress is owned by the drug and insurance companies." PNHP has a very straightforward set of four principles guiding its universal health care proposal, which I think, if properly understood by the public, would send millions of people to the streets demanding immediate change:

* Access to comprehensive health care is a human right. It is the responsibility of society, through its government, to assure this right. Coverage should not be tied to employment. Private insurance firms’ past record disqualifies them from a central role in managing health care.

*The right to choose and change one’s physician is fundamental to patient autonomy. Patients should be free to seek care from any licensed health care professional.

*Pursuit of corporate profit and personal fortune have no place in caregiving and they create enormous waste. The U.S. already spends enough to provide comprehensive health care to all Americans with no increase in total costs. However, the vast health care resources now squandered on bureaucracy (mostly due to efforts to divert costs to other payers or onto patients themselves), profits, marketing and useless or even harmful medical interventions must be shifted to needed care.

*In a democracy, the public should set overall health policies. Personal medical decisions must be made by patients with their caregivers, not by corporate or government bureaucrats.

The economics of a single-payer, universal health care system are unassailable. It would save $300 billion in administration costs. It would be financed partly by the 60 percent of taxes that already go into the health care system via Medicaid, Medicare and payments for public employee coverage. The rest of the financing, over the long term, would be easily done with modest tax increases (by a 7 percent payroll tax and a 2 percent progressive income tax) —and result in better health care for people for less money than people shell out in ever-rising deductibles. With one bold stroke, a single-payer system would do more to help the bottom line of companies than any tax break or so-called "free trade" agreement.

The troubling reality to the arguments I’ve made is that they are not particularly original: The moral and economic need for a universal health care system has been well-known for a very long time. The only question now is: How many companies will have to go belly up and how many more millions of workers will face bankruptcy and illness because we allow ideology—the deification of the so-called free market—to triumph over common sense?
Jonathan Tasini is president of the Economic Future Group and writes his "Working In America" columns for TomPaine.com on an occasional basis. His blog Working Life chronicles the labor movement and other issues affecting American workers.