Workers Union: Health Care Bill Disappoints

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, says the Senate health care bill is a step in the right direction, although not without disappointments. Stern, who represents 2.2 million members of the largest health care union in the country, tells Robert Siegel how the union plans to fight for more affordable health care for working families and for more insurance reforms.

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And now we turn to labor. Andy Stern is president of the Service Employees International Union, the SEIU. It's one of the countries most influential unions representing more than two million workers. And about half of them work in the health care industry. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ANDY STERN (President, Service Employees International Union): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, how would you grade say the Senate bill: unmitigated success, success with reservations, or failure?

Mr. STERN: I say it's a big step forward and at the same time I think there are still improvements we need to make and that's what we were trying to focus on right now.

SIEGEL: One of the likely ways to pay for this will be taxing the so-called Cadillac insurance plans - plans with coverage worth $8,000 for an individual or $21,000 for a family. That's not something that you support. You pushed hard for a public option, that's not there. You've told your membership that you'd continue to fight for those provisions. Does that fight stand any chance at all a victory?

Mr. STERN: I think that the issue of whether or not we are going to tax people-who-works' benefits is still and issue and still can be solved. If you are a state worker or a local government worker in New Hampshire, you are paying $8,000 more for the exact same health care that your congressional delegation is getting. And now, besides having to pay $8,000, you're also being asked to be taxed. That just makes absolutely no sense. We are talking about hard working, middle class people who happen to be in places where the insurance companies have really eliminated all the competition. And so, it's just not fair that people who work are going to pay more than their congressmen and then be taxed as well.

SIEGEL: But, and you said this in a letter recently to SEIU members, SEIU does not accept that this monumental effort, this reform that is so necessary to the health and well-being of our economy our families our future, can be over without a fight. What does that mean? There are only 60 votes in the Senate for this. If you want anything in conference that jarred one senator loose from support of it, it's dead.

Mr. STERN: I think if we look at some of the issues that are worth fighting for - and for us, that's really about whether or not people can afford the health care that the bill is going to provide. You know, there are things in the Senate bill that provide subsidies to people that work. We are just saying the subsidy should be increased to where the House bill's subsidies are, which are up to $70,000 or $80,000 for families of four, and not just $60,000.

There are issues such as what do we do part-time workers because there's somewhat of an incentive in the Senate bill, you know, for an employer to make their workers go from full to part time in order to avoid health care obligations. I think that's something we can fix. I think it is fair to say as disappointed as I am that the Medicare buy-in and the public option - we're not going to dislodge that 60th vote but there are many other areas that we can make this a happier new year for people in terms of their health care benefits.

SIEGEL: And in terms of you and your union's approach to elections, what do you make of the kind of bill that the Democrats could produce having won the White House, and a landslide in Senate elections and a very, very strong majority in the House? If this is the measure of that bill, what does that say about the ability of the Democratic Party to legislate in labor's interest?

Mr. STERN: I would say there is a really pretty, significant and fundamental issue for our country and that is how the U.S. Senate operates. Americans gave the Democratic Party in the Senate a gift, which was 60 votes. They had an opportunity to have a debate. And so far they've squandered the gift rather than using it as an opportunity, they've used it against each other as a weapon. And right now we find, you know, I can take my single vote if I'm a senator and use it to bend the entire body's will to my needs and I don't think that's the democracy Americans voted for.

SIEGEL: Andy Stern, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. STERN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: It's Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.

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