Week Ending March 29, 2019

House passes bill to strengthen equal pay for equal work law

  • Paycheck Fairness Act Passes the House
  • DOJ Seeks to Repeal the Affordable Care Act
  • Congressional Budget Resolutions: Caps Deal is Needed
  • Special Education Investments
  • DeVos Budget Slashes Investments in Education
  • Behavioral Health Care Clinics Funding
  • Protecting the Rights of Workers to Unionize
  • Lowering Health Care Costs and Rx Drug Prices
  • Classified School Employee Recognition Bill Passes Senate
  • President Trump Releases 2020 Budget

Paycheck Fairness Act Passes the House 

In the last week of Women’s History Month, members of the House passed the Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R.7), to improve upon gender-based wage discrimination laws. In a vote of 242 to 187, members of Congress, including seven Republicans, affirmed that wage discrimination must no longer be tolerated.

Unfortunately, women still earn less than men 56 years after former President John. F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law. Current census data reveal that women continue to earn 20 percent less than men in the same job. In some cases, that amounts to roughly $400,000 in pay that women lose over the course of their working lives. It is even worse for women of color. 

H.R.7 strengthens the Equal Pay Act by amending the FLSA to address gender pay discrimination. It reinforces the mechanisms to address wrongdoings by employers, protects employees from being fired for sharing their salary, and establishes a grant training program for women and girls on negotiation skills.

What You Need to Know: AFSCME supports this bill because it advances progress for hard-working families, upholds the value of fairness, and promotes economic security for women through their retirement and pensions. Our letter was also recognized on the House floor and entered into the official record. We hope members of the Senate will act swiftly to consider this bill.

DOJ Seeks to Repeal the Affordable Care Act

It was a stark tale of two health care plans this week. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said it supports a federal judge’s ruling that the entire Affordable Care Act (ACA) should be invalidated. This is a major shift from DOJ’s prior position that only the protections for pre-existing conditions were invalid as a result of the elimination of the individual mandate to purchase health insurance. This change of legal position, if it were to prevail, risks disrupting the entire health care system and health insurance coverage for millions of Americans, including working families with coverage through their job. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) criticized the move as “destroying protections for pre-existing conditions to tearing down every last benefit and protection the Affordable Care Act provides….”

On Tuesday, Pelosi, along with House Chairmen Frank Pallone (D-NJ) (Energy and Commerce Committee), Bobby Scott (D-VA) (Education and Labor Committee) and Richard Neal (D-MA) (Ways and Means Committee) unveiled the “Protecting Pre-existing Conditions and Making Health Care More Affordable Act of 2019” (H.R. 1884). The bill helps working families whose out-of-pocket premiums for employer-sponsored coverage exceed 9.86 percent of income to purchase individual market coverage with financial assistance. Currently, workers with employer coverage cannot receive help with purchasing coverage if the premium they would pay for self-only coverage is less than 9.86 percent of income. The change in how affordability is determined for families would allow more middle-class individuals and families to qualify for subsidies. The bill also strengthens protections for people with pre-existing health conditions and reverses administrative actions that have made it harder for people to learn about and enroll in coverage. AFSCME supports this legislative proposal.

What You Need to Know: It’s rare for the federal government to change its established legal position mid-appeal in such a high-profile lawsuit (Texas v. United States). The federal government’s position is now that the entire ACA must be invalidated. This shift in position raises questions whether the Trump administration will continue to enforce the ACA’s protections for pre-existing conditions and other important provisions in the law.

Congressional Budget Resolutions: Caps Deal is Needed

This week, the Senate Budget Committee approved a budget plan that establishes overall spending levels for defense and domestic funding. For the past eight years, those levels have been dictated by the Budget Control Act (BCA) or revised in a series of two-year budget deals. But there is no deal for fiscal year (FY) 2020, so the very low BCA caps are still law. These caps would require a cut of $55 billion to domestic funding, requiring deep cuts in public services. Sen. Michael Enzi (R-WY), the Senate Budget Committee Chairman, did not include any proposed increase in his plan. The resolution does call for an additional $50 billion in mandatory health care cuts over the next 10 years. It was approved by the committee on a party-line vote. House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth (D-KY) has not yet introduced a budget resolution.

What You Need to Know: While the budget resolution creates a non-binding plan for spending, what is really needed is to amend the BCA and set new spending caps so that domestic programs are not cut by $55 billion. Bipartisan negotiations in the House and Senate continue among congressional leaders to reach a new budget deal, and it appears that an agreement could be reached soon. This would hopefully provide relief from the tight caps and allow funding committees to craft annual spending bills.

Special Education Investments

A bipartisan group of members of Congress, led by Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Pat Roberts (R-KS), and Reps. Jared Huffman (D-CA) and John Katko (R-NY) in the House introduced the “Individuals with Disabilities in Education (IDEA) Full Funding Act” (S. 866 and H.R. 1878). The bills would fulfill a commitment Congress made in 1975 when it passed the original IDEA Act, to ensure that students with disabilities could access a free and appropriate public education to reach their fullest potential. The law made a promise that the federal government would fund 40 percent of the cost for each student with disability, with states shouldering the remaining amount. This bill renews that commitment and creates a glide path to reach 40 percent in 10 years, beginning with an increase of $2.672 billion in FY 2020 for a total of roughly $14 billion. In a statement, AFSCME President Lee Saunders said, “All students deserve access to a free, safe, nurturing and quality learning environment. Students with disabilities are no exception. We support the introduction of the IDEA Full Funding Act to ensure that the federal promise made to students with disabilities nearly 50 years ago is kept.” 

What You Need to Know: Currently, the federal government is paying less than 15 percent per student with disability, which shortchanges students, educators and requires states to divert funds from other vital areas. IDEA is an essential federal investment, not just for students with disabilities, but for public schools and state budgets.

DeVos Budget Slashes Investments in Education 

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos attempted to defend deep cuts in the proposed FY 2020 budget as she testified before House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Labor, Health, Human Services and Education (LHHS). It’s difficult to defend cutting education funding by $8.8 billion, a 12 percent proposed cut that would eliminate 29 education programs, including investments in training for education professionals, aftercare programs for poor students, literacy programs, Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), gifted and talented programs, civics education, grants for poor college students, investments in minority-serving higher education, and even Special Olympics. This miserly budget level-funds Title I for disadvantaged students and IDEA which services students with disabilities. But the DeVos budget proposes a $60 million increase for charter schools, even though a recent report shows over $1 billion in fraudulent charter school spending. And she also proposes a $5 billion tax voucher that would enable individuals and corporations to receive a 100 percent tax credit for contributions to private school “scholarship” funds. That means donors could receive their entire donation back through the tax code, but federal revenues would be down $5 billion.

What You Need to Know: There is bipartisan opposition to the deep cuts DeVos proposed, but Congress is still grappling with how to increase tight budget caps and many programs are vying for limited federal dollars. AFSCME members’ support is needed to show the value of programs like IDEA and Title I, and the need for increased investments.

Behavioral Health Care Clinics Funding

The House passed the “Medicaid Services Investment and Accountability Act of 2019” (H.R. 1839) with overwhelming bipartisan support. The legislation extends funding for the Medicaid demonstration projects that created Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHC) in Oregon and Oklahoma. The additional $14 million in federal funds in the bill will allow Oregon and Oklahoma to continue to deliver mental health and substance use disorder treatment through these innovative clinics. Without new funds the Medicaid demonstration CCBHC program is set to expire March 30 in Oregon and Oklahoma, and on June 30 in Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The bill also extended other important Medicaid provisions. It extended the spousal impoverishment protections for a spouse when his or her partner is relying on home and community-based services and the Money Follows the Person program, which helps individuals with disabilities receive in-home support and services. AFSCME is urging the Senate to pass the bill swiftly. 

What You Need to Know: AFSCME urged Congress to avert a funding cliff for the successful and effective CCBHC. These clinics provide treatment for all who come into the clinic, whether they have public, private or no insurance. They treat individuals with severe mental health issues and complex health needs. AFSCME will continue to press for funding for all CCBHCs through September 30 and into FY 2020.

Protecting the Rights of Workers to Unionize

A subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee examined the threats to workers’ rights and how unions are the key to reducing income inequality. Professor Jack Rosenfeld testified about his research from across the social sciences, which finds that strong unions were a key factor in delivering widespread gains to millions of working- and middle-class Americans during the post-World War II decades, and the decline in unions explains much of the rise of income inequality. He also pointed out that when unions are strong, they are pivotal to improving the economic standing of racial and ethnic minorities and women workers. Devki K. Virk, an attorney who represents workers and unions, testified about four specific problems with current private federal sector labor law; allowance of unfair and coercive conduct, its insufficient mechanisms for insuring good faith collective bargaining, the inadequacy of its remedies, and its failure to extend even the limited protections that it does offer to the full range of workers who need it.

What You Need to Know: As subcommittee Chairwoman Frederica Wilson (D-FL) said, “if Congress is truly on the side of American workers, then we must protect their right to bargain for better wages and better working conditions.” 

Lowering Health Care Costs and Rx Drug Prices

The health panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee adopted 12 bills with the goal of lowering the price of prescription drugs and reducing health insurance costs for working families. Half of the bills approved seek to reduce prescription drug prices by removing barriers that block competing generic products from coming to market sooner. These bills aim to help all Americans, whether they get their health care coverage through their job, Medicaid, Medicare or other insurance coverage. Spurring greater competition through generic and biosimilar versions of brand name prescription medicines makes sense under the current system. Other bills approved focus on helping to lower Americans’ health care costs, protecting people living with pre-existing conditions, and reversing some of the most harmful administrative actions to sabotage the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

What You Need to Know:  The House has advanced through a subcommittee several bipartisan legislative proposals to stop brand name prescription drug companies from blocking lower-priced generic versions of their product from being available to consumers. These proposals are an important step, but increasing market competition through generics may not be enough to lower prescription drug prices. To really bring down prescription drug prices, we must examine current law that allows drug companies to set prices as high as they want to drive up profits for medicines that people need to maintain their health or save their lives.

Classified School Employee Recognition Bill Passes Senate

The Senate followed the House of Representatives’ recent action to pass “The Recognizing Achievement in Classified School Employees (RISE) Act” (S. 323) introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). The bill creates an annual national award program, like the “Teacher of the Year” award, to recognize the excellence of classified school employees who work as school bus drivers, crossing guards, custodians, cafeteria workers, and administrative employees. Such individuals work side-by-side with teachers and administrators to ensure that all students, from the youngest to the oldest, including students with disabilities, are safe in their journey to and from school, during school, and that they receive nutritional and health services as well as assistance and support to achieve academic success.

What You Need to Know: Following House and Senate passage of the RISE Act, the bill moves to the president for his signature. AFSCME strongly supports this long overdue recognition of the essential contributions of classified school employees to the success of students, schools and communities.

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