Two recent experiences over the last few months have brought renewed attention to the health care crisis that is closing in around all of us.
Last year a young family’s infant was born with tragic health problems that will likely cost several hundred thousands of dollars in doctor and hospital costs over the next several years. While the couple is on 802’s Plan A and the theatre hospitalization plan, non-hospital costs are capped at $50,000 per covered individual per year under Plan A. The costs will almost certainly rise above that limit.
Fortunately, our union is full of members who care about one another. A special fund was established, the Julia Fund, to help defray the expected costs. So far hundreds of members have generously contributed.
A few weeks ago a very busy musician working regularly on tours with jazz and popular music groups came into my office to explain how worried he is about the rising cost of his family health insurance. He is married with two children and another on the way. He is currently paying over $1,200 a month for insurance and it has gone up in each of the last three years. He really can’t afford to pay it, but what choice does he have?
We talked about the possibility of one or more of his employers signing touring agreements with Local 802 and making health benefits contributions that would provide access to the Local 802 health plan. I hope that will work out.
These are the kinds of health care crises facing our members and their families on a regular basis.
UNION’S HEALTH PLAN ADAPTS
Over the last few years 802’s Health Benefits Plan has suffered substantial losses which forced cuts in benefits. The losses also resulted in an increase in the eligibility rate, which in most 802 contracts triggers an increase in employer contributions.
While we hope these changes will stabilize the plan, it is far from clear that we’re out of the woods.
The wild card is rapidly rising costs. In 2001 and 2002 the cost of health insurance rose by double digits. An important part of the increases in each of those years was the rising cost of drugs and those costs are projected to increase by 19 percent in each of the next two years.
We are of course not the only health fund to face these problems. Just looking at others in the entertainment industry, we see the same trends. The SAG and Actors Equity funds have both been forced to cut benefits. The Writers Guild Fund has had to institute a dependent co-payment. There are very few health care plans that haven’t been forced to either raise their eligibility requirements, cut benefits or both in order to continue to provide this critically important benefit.
To describe health care in this country as a national crisis is to state the obvious. The solution to the crisis is also fairly obvious — a single payer national health care system, which has proven humane, effective and cost efficient, and is available in every developed industrial country except the United States. Included on this page is the outline of such a plan authored by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI).
The answer as to who will respond to the crisis and how they will respond, unfortunately, is not so obvious. This much, however, we do know — the Bush administration and the current leaders of the House and Senate have ignored it. They have shown little concern about the rising number of working people who are uninsured nor about the household budgets that are being devastated by the cost of health care.
It’s no accident that Bush’s home state of Texas leads the nation in the percentage of uninsured — a shocking 27 percent of working adults according to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
There is ample evidence, however, that the Bush administration will look out for the interests of the insurance industry. The best example is the Medicare Drug Plan passed last year. It is little more than a bailout for the pharmaceutical industry. It provides almost no drug benefit for retirees, it doesn’t even pretend to control rising drug costs and in fact will likely insure the opposite — a continuing increase in pharmaceutical costs that will continue to drive up the costs facing our and other health benefit funds.
THE ROAD AHEAD
What can we do? First of all we have to do everything possible to insure the health and stability of the Local 802 Health Benefits Plan. This means making sure employers pay their fair share and that our new and renewing collective bargaining agreements take into account the possibility of increased contributions.
Second, more employers need to be paying their share of health benefits. The more of your work that is under contract and the more employers who are contributing, the smaller the burden that has to be shared. In the overall scheme of things, those employers under contract who are paying a share of health benefits are the good guys. The scoundrels are the nonunion employers, including some of the nation’s largest and wealthiest employers.
Wal-Mart is a good example. Wal-Mart has almost completely evaded its responsibility to pay any health benefits. Wal-Mart not only undermines the health of their employees, but it also succeeds in dumping the cost of its care onto Medicaid or hospital emergency rooms, the cost of which is picked up by local, state and national government, and by levies on health insurance plans like ours.
Thirdly, health care issues need to be a high priority in the upcoming national election. Those who seek our support need to know that where they stand on the issue of health care is critical to getting our votes.