Gary Lapon analyzes some of the disappointing proposals that have crept onto the health care reform table.
June 15, 2009
SINGLE-PAYER health reform may be "off the table" for the Obama administration's pending overhaul of the U.S. health care system, but apparently taxing workers' employer-provided health insurance benefits is not.
Sen. Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee
According to a June 2 WashingtonPost.com video report, after meeting with Obama and other Democrats, Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus said that taxing health benefits is "something [Obama] might consider" and is "on the table."
This, the Post points out, is in sharp contrast with Obama's campaign rhetoric that criticized John McCain for the same proposal. "For the first time in American history, he wants to tax your health benefits," Obama said in September. "Apparently, Senator McCain doesn't think it's enough that your health premiums have doubled. He thinks you should have to pay taxes on them, too."
Since then, the Obama administration released a statement that while "the president made it clear during the campaign that he has serious concerns about taxing health care benefits," nevertheless, "all options should be considered." Conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel suggested that Obama "may well be attracted to the dollars of a benefit tax, but he's waiting to see if he can blame Congress for dragging him into it."
Currently, workers pay no income tax on compensation they receive in the form of health care benefits. Removing this exclusion is equivalent to raising taxes for a majority of the working class during an economic crisis where many are failing or barely able to make ends meet. It would come on top of skyrocketing out-of-pocket health care costs--for workers who get insurance through an employer, these costs increased by 34 percent from 2004 to 2007, according to a recent study in Health Affairs.
The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that taxing benefits would raise up to $246 billion a year toward coverage for the uninsured, as part of Obama's health reform plan, which supposedly aims at providing health insurance for all.
However, according to the Congressional Quarterly's HealthBeat Web site, Baucus, whose committee is leading efforts to come up with a reform plan, said last month that "we're not going to get 100 percent coverage" and that a more likely figure would be 94-96 percent. Baucus added, "We're not going to cover undocumented workers. That's too politically explosive."
In other words, a possible "solution" to the failure of the for-profit U.S. health insurance system could raise taxes on the working class toward helping people purchase health insurance (and fill the already-bulging pockets of the insurance companies)--and would leave millions uninsured, including undocumented immigrants, one of the most oppressed and exploited sections of the working class.
There is plenty of money in the federal budget to pay for Obama's proposed health care reform, not to mention a much more effective single-payer system.
Estimates of the cost of Obama's proposals range from $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion over 10 years. The total U.S. military budget (including the Pentagon budget, spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for nuclear weapons, and payments to service military debt) is nearly $1 trillion per year, more than the rest of the world combined.
Obama could easily cover the costs of health care reform by ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing troops home from the over 700 U.S. military bases scattered across the globe and ceasing the development of nuclear weapons (after all, the U.S. already has enough nukes to destroy the world many times over). But such steps would be "too politically explosive" given the near absolute consensus among Democrats and Republicans on the rehabilitation and promotion of U.S. empire.
Baucus' comment about not providing health care to undocumented workers--predominately Latino immigrants, but also including people from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, among other places--because it's "too politically explosive" is revealing as well.
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FORTUNATELY, WHAT is seen by politicians as possible and what is seen as "too explosive" changes, depending on who is or isn't taking to the streets or exerting power in the workplace.
It would have been "too politically explosive" for Baucus to suggest today that health care reform not cover African Americans. However, that would have been an acceptable view for a mainstream politician before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s overturned Jim Crow and shifted the political spectrum and mainstream consciousness in the direction of equality for African American.
History, unfortunately, does not move steadily forward in terms of issues of social and economic justice and equality. Just a few decades ago, the idea of a Democratic (or Republican) President overseeing the dismantling of health and retirement benefits for United Autoworkers (UAW) would have "too politically explosive." But not today, after decades of attacks on unions and workers' living standards.
What reforms fall within the range of acceptability depends on the relative strength of the capitalist class on the one hand and the working class and social movements on the other. Our task today is to make it "too politically explosive" to pay for reforms by increasing taxes on the working class, to deny undocumented immigrants basic human needs like health care, or to suggest as an option any health care reform that does not ensure universal access to care.
Struggles like the victorious sit-in at Republic Windows & Doors, which saw a largely Latino and immigrant work force occupying their factory for demands that included health care benefits for themselves and their families, are an example of how different demands can be combined.
As the saying goes, "if you're not at the table, you're on the menu." The labor movement and the left are weak today and have been for some time, which is why our wages and benefits are being consumed by a ruling class hungry for profit. We need to organize and rebuild--and demand that the only options "on the table" are human needs, justice, dignity and equality.