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Face to Face: President McEntee on Reform

AFSCME was on the frontlines during the health care battles in the early 1990s — it was the right thing to do then, and over the years the need for reform became even more compelling.

By AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee
President McEntee
President McEntee. (Photo credit: Rick Reinhard)

Message from the President

Throughout your career in the labor movement, you have fought against the special interests that opposed health care reform. Did you ever think Congress would finally pass the bill?

AFSCME was on the frontlines during the health care battles in the early 1990s — it was the right thing to do then, and over the years the need for reform became even more compelling as costs skyrocketed and millions of Americans joined the ranks of the uninsured. Over the last year, AFSCME members fought hard to pass President Obama’s health care reform package. It was the largest issue mobilization campaign in union history. AFSCME members contacted Congress hundreds of thousands of times to let lawmakers know that they had to get the job done. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid deserve credit for their leadership on this critical issue.

We marched, we lobbied and we rallied. Losing was not an option. We had to fight until we won.

What would you say to AFSCME members in response to the right wing rhetoric that health care reform is a “government takeover” of our health care system and that it will only mean higher taxes for them?

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 does nothing of that sort. The legislation expands coverage by providing subsidies for Americans to purchase affordable coverage from private insurers. It has cost controls to help make coverage more affordable for everyone.

The truth is, this new law is going to help us at the bargaining table. For too long, we have fought too hard to keep the health care we have. Now that we have additional security, we will have more leverage at the table.

One of the most contentious issues during the health care reform battle was the im-plementation of an excise tax on so-called “Cadillac” health plans. How did labor manage to fight this provision?

First of all, what some pundits refer to as “Cadillac” plans are anything but. Some plans have higher costs because the workforce is older, not because the benefits are somehow more generous. Other plans are more expensive because some areas have higher medical costs. There is nothing “gold-plated” about the good benefits our members won.

This is why we fought so hard: to minimize the impact of the tax on our plans. While there still is an excise tax in the law, we eliminated about 85 percent of it. No AFSCME member’s plan will be taxed before 2018, and it will only affect individual plans valued over $10,200 and family plans valued over $27,500 — not including vision and dental. Plus, we won increases in these amounts for older workers and workers in high-risk jobs.

Some politicians are threatening to repeal the bill and have made it a central plank in their electoral platform. Do you think this will be a big threat in November?

Our politics have become increasingly partisan and many right wing ideologues and Tea Party folks are more determined than ever to stop gains for working families. Make no mistake — they have declared war on the middle-class, and you’d better believe they’ll come after us this November. This is why we need to mobilize and maintain worker-friendly majorities in Congress: to defend what we’ve accomplished, keep fighting for working families, and help turn the economy around.