by Bruce Vail
Since President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) into law in 2010, unions say they have pleaded with the White House dozens of times to make labor-friendly changes to the law. With the deadline to sign up for 2014 coverage looming, hospitality union Unite Here has produced a stinging new report on the failure of the White House and congressional Democrats to face Obamacare’s numerous problems.
The 12-page report, “The Irony of Obamacare: Making Inequality Worse,” began circulating last week to its primary audience of some 270,000 Unite Here members. It largely focuses on the law’s negative future impact on Unite Here’s existing joint labor-management healthcare plans, also known as “Taft-Hartley plans,” warning that union members may lose their existing insurance coverage and be forced to buy more expensive insurance elsewhere.
Overall, the report asserts, “without smart fixes, the [Affordable Care Act] threatens the middle class with higher premiums, loss of hours, and a shift to part-time work and less comprehensive coverage.”
After the report began circulating, conservative media outlets seized on it as evidence that unions are broadly opposed to Obamacare.
Not so, Unite Here President Douglas “D” Taylor tells In These Times. Some features of the law—parents’ ability, for example, to keep their adult children on family medical plans till age 26—make sense, he says. Likewise, the aspect that protects consumers with expensive pre-existing medical problems from losing insurance coverage is necessary and overdue.
“Everybody knows there are good parts of it. But there are also parts that need to be fixed,” he says.
What infuriates union leaders, Taylor continues, is the White House’s refusal to tackle those vital changes—especially those that would ensure the continued availability of Taft-Hartley health plans for union members. Such plans, which are typically funded by financial contributions from both employers and workers, are the principal source of insurance coverage for some 20 million union members nationwide, labor leaders say. But under the ACA, employers face no significant penalties for abandoning Taft-Hartley coverage for their workers, thus imperiling existing systems of insurance that are valued by unions and their members.
Furthermore, Unite Here asserts, low-income employees can only get government subsidies for insurance if they abandon their existing plans to buy new ones on the public exchanges. And leaders fear the ensuing exodus may ultimately doom the availability of Taft-Hartley plans for all employees. Yet Obama, Unite Here officials say, has continued to balk.
“In the three years since ACA was passed, we met with the White House 46 times” to press the case for specific changes to the law, Taylor says. “We met with Health and Human Services Department 12 times. And we met with the Department of Labor and the IRS.”
But their hard work, he says, did not come to fruition. “After you meet 46 times and nothing happens, you get the point,” Taylor says, that the White House does not intend to aid labor unions in their efforts to protect the Taft-Hartley plans.
“There is no point in talking to this administration anymore. The White House has been blatantly dishonest,” Taylor argues. “We took the president at his word when he said that if you like your current health plan, you could keep it.”
These frustrations have not been a secret. Last year, Taylor was one of three major union leaders who signed an open letter to Congress that urged Congress to make the changes the executive administration wouldn’t.
But so far, Taylor reports, the push hasn’t been successful. “Frankly, the Capitol Hill Democrats aren’t any better,” than the White House, he says. “We all know that the Republicans want to destroy ACA, but the Democrats don’t want to be honest about [its shortcomings].”
Congressional friends of labor are well aware of the issues, according to Taylor, but they’re afraid to force a debate that might unravel the entire ACA law. Further complicating the situation is a climate of fear that Democrats will lose support in the 2014 midterm elections if criticism of Obamacare escalates, he says.
In a signed article in the Huffington Post last week, Taylor pleaded for an “an honest debate” among lawmakers about the shortcomings of Obamacare. He also blasted Obama and Congress for their willingness to adjust the law to benefit powerful corporate interests while ignoring labor union members:
“Congress and the President have it in their power to fix this problem. The President has said he will use the “pen and phone” to act when Congress won’t. Well, he has already used that pen to give Congressional staff an exemption from Obamacare. He has used a pen to give major corporations an exemption from paying a fine. He has used his pen to exempt employers with 51 to 100 employees from the law. And he has used his pen to allow corporate executives to keep their gold-plated plans while pushing many other employees onto part-time work. All we ask is to keep what we have—nothing more, nothing less.”
These exemptions are troubling, Taylor tells In These Times, because they indicate the Obama administration’s willingness to make ACA changes beneficial to powerful corporate interests while insisting it can do nothing to help union members. “This administration and the Democrats are more interested in helping big companies,” he says.
And the disproportionately large advantages extend to the behemoth insurance providers, too. “Most of the ACA’s $965 billion in subsidies will go directly to commercial insurance companies, one of the largest transfers of public wealth to private hands ever,” Taylor’s report pointed out.
“Most people in the progressive community should be aghast,” at this transfer of wealth, Taylor says, which benefits “the for-profit [insurance] industry that caused so many of the problems in healthcare in the first place.”
Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. This post originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog.