Trumka: Time for Hill to Get Health Reform Right

Posted February 8, 2010 at 5:44pm

It’s critical that Congress act swiftly on legislation to save and create jobs — but that doesn’t mean Members can turn down the heat on health care reform. We learned last week that health care spending consumed a record 17.3 percent of the U.S. economy last year. Tens of millions of Americans have no insurance, others are denied coverage every day, and insurance companies keep pushing premiums up beyond the ability of average people to pay.

[IMGCAP(1)]Health care reform can’t wait. And it doesn’t have to.

A Senate majority can fix the Senate’s flawed health care bill and get it to the House for final passage. With the Republican “party of no” refusing to collaborate and throwing every obstacle it can into the path of health care reform, this can only happen through reconciliation.

Opponents of health care reform are trying to cast the reconciliation process as some exotic technique to ram through legislation. But in the face of unmovable political gridlock, reconciliation is the right way to get this country’s working people the reform they’re demanding — the reform they need.

Reconciliation is democratic: Proposals must have majority support of at least 51 Senators to pass. And there is ample precedent for reconciliation. Two groundbreaking changes in domestic policy were passed using reconciliation by a GOP majority in Congress and signed into law by a Democratic president — welfare reform in 1996 and the creation of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997.

There’s nothing rare about reconciliation. It has been used 19 times since 1980, with a GOP Congress leading the way the last nine times.

Ironically, some of the same Senators complaining the loudest about reconciliation today used it enthusiastically — three times — to pass more than $1 trillion in Bush administration tax cuts for the wealthy. Those votes helped turn a large federal budget surplus into a deficit. Using reconciliation to pass health care reform, in contrast, will cut the deficit by at least $1 billion — and make sure hardworking Americans and their families can get the health care they need.

Last year, the House passed a strong health care bill that would cover millions of people, lower costs and keep insurance companies honest. But after months of fruitless wrangling to reach a bipartisan agreement, the Senate adopted a bill that falls short of the kind of reform working people can support — and it doesn’t stand a chance of passing the House.

The Senate bill leaves the Medicare prescription drug “doughnut hole” wide open, fails to break the insurance companies’ stranglehold on working families and taxes middle-class health benefits to pay for reform.

Working people are struggling already to stay afloat without having to pay more for what they already have. The majority of Americans agree that a fairer way to pay for health care reform is asking the wealthy — who have enjoyed the benefits of those Bush tax breaks for years now — to pay their fair share by giving back a portion of the massive tax cuts they received. That’s what the House bill does.

For millions of Americans — the uninsured and underinsured, the growing ranks of the unemployed and those being denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions — Republican opposition to health care reform is a serious threat to their families, livelihoods and health.

So it’s time to get this done and get it done right. It’s time for the Senate to agree to a better bill and pass it through reconciliation.

It’s time for the House to pass the bill and send it to President Barack Obama to sign into law. As we saw in Massachusetts just last month, America’s working people are fed up with excuses, and they are demanding results.

Members of Congress who let them down will face their own peril come Election Day. And as our family members and neighbors continue to suffer at the hands of insurance companies, none of us can afford to let this opportunity for real reform pass us by.

Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO.