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Cutting public employees' health care is shortsighted

By Anne Scheetz, M.D.
The State Journal-Register, Oct. 12, 2016

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel may seem like political adversaries, but they've made common cause on at least one issue: public employees' health insurance.

Unfortunately, they haven't acted to relieve employees from rising premiums, sky-high deductibles, and unconscionable drug prices.

Instead they've sought to diminish workers' benefits, furthering a trend that began in the private sector and that, unchecked, will end with health care being inaccessible to all but a privileged few.

Rauner wants to double state employees' share of health care costs, which he calls unaffordable, shifting them from state government to individual workers and their families (who are taxpayers, by the way), ignoring the pain and financial hardship inflicted on people with serious medical needs.

Moreover, the governor's "turnaround agenda" includes a proposal for changing state law to allow local government units to exclude public workers' health benefits from collective bargaining entirely.

Given this stance, it is no surprise that Rauner used the Illinois budget impasse as an excuse to threaten to stop, and in some cases even to actually stop for a time, making health benefit payments for state workers, payments to managed-care plans, and payments of the state's share of health insurance premiums.

Meanwhile, Chicago's Rahm Emanuel crows that the city "stopped the rise in employee health care costs." In reality, his administration didn't eliminate those costs, but shifted them onto workers and retirees.

Emanuel's plan, like Rauner's, is divide and conquer: pit taxpayers against public employees, groups of workers against one another, unions against other unions, worker against worker within unions.

The mayor wants newly hired city employees to pay a larger portion of their health care costs than current employees. He wants to push most city retirees onto substandard Obamacare plans. And, he demands "cooperation" from unions as he seeks to degrade their members' hard-earned health benefits.

In pushing these cuts, Rauner and Emanuel pose as defenders of the taxpayer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their health policies are part of an agenda of austerity for ordinary people that allows for greater wealth accumulation for the tiny minority of people at the very top.

U.S. health care is too expensive. But the fault lies not with workers, public or private, but rather with our corporatized, for-profit health care system. Consider, for example, the private health insurance industry's reluctance to pay medical claims (a profit enhancer), the wasteful bureaucracy this afflicts us with, and the profiteering of large pharmaceutical firms (think EpiPen).

While Rauner's and Emanuel's bipartisan assault on public employees' health benefits should be rebuffed, that's not enough.

To get at the root of the problem we must exclude private health insurance companies from health care, force drug companies to negotiate reasonable prices, and remove corporate profits from the health care equation.

The solution: a nonprofit single-payer health care system. Also known as Improved Medicare for All, such a publicly financed system would slash paperwork, negotiate fair prices for all goods and services, and institute evidence-based cost-control measures.

Studies show that the savings we'd reap from streamlined administration alone would be sufficient to provide everyone with high-quality coverage and eliminate all co-pays and deductibles. And health security would be assured for all workers, public and private.

Other countries do it. By working together, we can do it too.

Dr. Anne Scheetz is a founding member of the Illinois Single-Payer Coalition and a leader of the Illinois chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program. She lives in Chicago.

http://www.sj-r.com...