Cutting through the myths of health care reform

Posted Dec. 18, 2009, at 6:50 p.m.

Maine residents need and deserve quality, affordable health care. After months of hearings, town hall meetings and debate, the Senate stands poised to vote on a bill that will then be merged with House legislation and help solve our severe health care crisis.

Because we stand closer than ever to achieving real health care reform, it’s important to know the facts and cut through the many myths about what health care legislation will and will not do.

The Senate bill takes huge strides toward lowering health care costs and holding insurance companies accountable. It provides coverage to 94 percent of Americans. And despite claims from Republicans who refused even to allow debate on the bill, the legislation will reduce the deficit by $130 billion over the next 10 years.

One of the ways the Senate bill reduces health care costs is by making the delivery of care more efficient, hospitals safer and doctors more knowledgeable about the impact of different treatment options. These are reforms that can be supported by anyone who has had to wait in long lines in an emergency room, or has been charged high premiums just for preventive care.

But all is not perfect in the Senate bill. Some improvements must be made so that those who have been hit hardest by rising health costs aren’t asked to shoulder all of the burden of paying for reform.

One troubling proposal is a tax on the health benefits of middle-class families. It’s the wrong way to pay for health care. The average family health care premium has gone up 131 percent since 1999. Yet some in Washington think it’s OK to ask workers already struggling with stagnant wages, higher health care costs and foreclosures to pay more for what they already have.

We know there’s a better way. The House of Representatives has passed legislation that will require the wealthy to pay their fair share. We think it’s only right for those who benefited so richly from the $2.5 trillion Bush tax cuts to pay more, and most Americans agree. A recent AP poll shows 57 percent of voters favor asking the wealthiest to pay more, while 56 percent oppose a tax on health benefits.

Another part of the Senate bill that should be expanded is the employer responsibility provision, which requires employers with 50 workers or more to pay a fee if any of their employees gets a government subsidy.

The Senate bill is a good start to remedying the current unfairness — in which too many companies that can afford to provide insurance don’t, leaving others to pick up the tab for their employees. But we believe that the employer responsibility provision should be extended to include all employers so that all workers can have health care security.

There’s a lot at stake in health care reform for the future of our country. Make no mistake, this is bigger than health care. If we don’t fix this problem, we can’t compete with companies around the globe that don’t have to shoulder health costs because their countries provide health care options. If we do nothing, we’ll face an economy in which health care eats up more and more of our budget.

And if we fail to act, we’ll continue to see people get sick and die due to lack of coverage, even in the richest country in the world.

Now is the time to act. We call on Sen. Olympia Snowe to help make the bill better for the people of Maine and we ask for her to stand with working families in support of health care we can all be proud of.

Ed Gorham is president of the Maine AFL-CIO.

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