Labor chief: Public option 'essential' for healthcare reform

Michael Bonfigli/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, speaks at a Monitor Breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington on Wednesday.

Organized labor, one of the Obama administration’s key supporters, is still pushing for a public option in health care reform at a time when the White House is downplaying its commitment to the approach.

AFL-CIO Secretary Richard Trumka, who is slated to become the organization’s president at its convention in Pittsburgh later this month, told a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters that a public option is essential. Under a public option, those who did not like or could not afford a health insurance plan being sold commercially could purchase coverage from a government run plan.

Breaking the stranglehold

“If you are interested in health insurance reform, the public option can not go away. It is essential. 94 percent of the insurance markets out there are classified as highly concentrated, that means they are controlled by just a couple of insurance companies,” Trumka said. “Now if you are going to break the stranglehold they have on insurance, you have to have a public option so that people have someplace to walk to.”

That view conflicts with signals the White House is sending.

Senior officials told the New York Times and Politico that the president would soon make a major speech where he would be much more specific about what elements he considers essential for health care reform. According to Politico’s Mike Allen, one aide said, “We have been saying all along that the most important part of this debate is not the public option, but rather ensuring choice and competition. There are lots of different ways to get there.”

At the breakfast, Trumka was critical of how Democrats have handled health reform negotiations. “I am sorry to say the Republicans have offered nothing and the Democrats sort of negotiated with themselves for a little while,” he said.

While taking a tougher line on the public option, Trumka defended President Obama at a time when his approval ratings have slipped sharply. In the Real Clear Politics average of major poll ratings, Mr. Obama has a 52.8 percent approval rating while 41.7 percent of the public disapprove of Obama's performance.

Obama gets an incomplete

Asked to grade the president’s work so far, Trumka said, “I think he gets an A for effort and an incomplete for results.”

Outgoing AFL-CIO President John Sweeney also spoke at the meeting with reporters. He said the greatest disappointment during the 14 years he served in the post was the 2005 split in which six major unions disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO. “There was no good reason for disaffiliation,” Sweeney said adding that negotiations to repair relations continue.

Bullish on labor legislation

As for his greatest satisfaction, Sweeney predicted passage both of health reform and the labor-backed Employee Free Choice Act which would make it easier to join a union.

“We are on the cusp of a national health care reform bill that will encompass much of what we have recommended. I think that we are going to see toward the end of the year an Employee Free Choice Act which would give workers a fair and just way to join a union if they want to have a union and to have collective bargaining and will eliminate all of the harassment and the intimidation that workers go through when they express any interest in joining a union," Sweeney said.


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