It is no secret that something must be done about our healthcare system — and soon. Even those lucky enough to have good coverage are aware that the current system is unsustainable. The number of uninsured people and the absurd costs of our medical needs continue to rise dramatically. Unfortunately, the problem with our entire healthcare system lies in the very core of its existence: an employer-based healthcare model, and worse yet, little is said about changing it. Our employer-based healthcare system is fundamentally flawed and should be abolished.
The practice began during the wage freeze of the Second World War enacted under President Roosevelt by the Emergency Stabilization Act of 1942. This led employers to attract and retain employees through fringe benefits, like healthcare, because the price controls did not apply to them. Almost seventy years later, the system is now severely outdated and no longer works. Although eliminating our current system would be a game changer for all unions negotiating contracts (since these days most negotiations focus on healthcare-related issues), this is not the thrust of my argument.
An employer-based healthcare system grants employers enormous control and is nothing more than “the company store” reinvented. Employers hold tremendous power not just over our lives, but our families’ lives as well, through the terms of our current healthcare plans. Many workers toil in low-wage, highly dangerous jobs — or in jobs they dislike — merely for the benefits they believe are valuable and good. Good, however, is relative. The desire to maintain power over workers, the foundation of the inherently oppressive nature of capitalism, causes large corporations to remain silent about or, even worse, speak out against a national healthcare plan. Although corporations would save enormous sums of money through such a plan, allowing for wage increases for employees and the accumulation of more profits, they would lose power over their workers. And, let’s face it, an empowered workforce is the last thing an employer wants. Unionization empowers workers, but if healthcare is the focus of all contract talks, unions are yielding much of their collective power. Only a government-run healthcare system that covers everyone can end the abuse. We need a single-payer system for everyone, like Medicare, that successfully runs with only a 3 percent administration cost. We need to remind ourselves that healthcare is as fundamental to our existence as food and should never be viewed as a commodity.
Consider the following exercise. It may seem a little ridiculous, but I think it highlights the flaw in our healthcare system. Suppose we replace health insurance with food: food would no longer be a big part of your budget, because most of the food your family needs would be covered through your plan. Imagine your employer provided you with a card to bring to one of the in-network supermarkets when you go grocery shopping. The natural organic store is out of network, so if you decide to shop there, you are forced to pay the entire bill out of pocket. Keep in mind that any out-of-pocket expenses will cut into your discretionary spending. At an approved grocery store you begin your shopping. Now, the particular plan you have determines not only how much you can acquire, but also what items you are allowed to have. A Big-Box retail clerk’s cheap plan may cover all the milk, bread, macaroni, rice, and beans your family needs, but you may only be allowed to have meat once a week. You want vegetables? Hope you like frozen, because fresh are out of network. Another consequence is that out-of-network items, like fresh vegetables, will become priced astronomically high because they are now considered a luxury. Let’s say you are in a union and are lucky enough to have a “Cadillac” food plan. You are allowed to have meat three times a week, and through a bitter strike, you won the right to eat steak, but only once a week. I shudder to think what would happen to the Food and Drug Administration’s recommended diet if corporate lobbyists were negotiating our diets instead of our healthcare.
This all sounds ludicrous, right? Is it that far off from the healthcare plans that are currently offered? Who gets what and how much? If you are wealthy enough, it doesn’t matter — you will always buy what you need and want (and then some). So what happens to the rest of us? We fight every day for something that should be a fundamental right of every human being . . . maintaining our health!
Our salary and work title should not determine our healthcare options. Why is a day-care worker’s life worth less than a CEO’s? A day-care worker per hour creates more utility for society in relation to his/her wage than anyone in a corporate boardroom. Why shouldn’t low-wage workers receive the same options for their healthcare services? If you are wealthy enough to afford extra services, great for you and your family, but everyone deserves proper and robust healthcare. After all, aren’t all men and women created equal? A lot of our elected leaders like to talk about their faith. If they truly were faithful servants, then they know in their hearts that universal coverage is noble and godly. Unfortunately, the faith they really have is in capitalism, and they play the role of obedient servant to the free market.
The public option is a good start to begin untangling the mess that is our current healthcare system. Providing competition and an affordable, dynamic healthcare option for the American people should help lead us to a system that works for everyone. Eventually we need to eliminate the employer-based healthcare model; I just wish it were sooner rather than later. In order to level the playing field with corporate interests, there must be a massive uprising led by the labor movement with support from all social and progressive movements. Publicly-funded elections would be a catalyst to achieving fairness in our electoral and legislative process. Until that balance is restored, we will all continue to beg for our healthcare and our lives at the “company store.”
Anthony Eramo is Legislative and Political Director of CWA 1104 and Nassau County Co-Chair of the Working Families Party.