The numbers tell a grim story. Nearly 46 million Americans are without health care coverage, 10 million of them children. But as bad as they are, these raw figures don’t begin to tell the whole story.
The number of uninsured Americans keeps growing at an alarming rate, 5.1 percent a year between 2000 and 2003. The problem is being exacerbated by the fact that employers are cutting or eliminating coverage altogether. Companies that once had enlightened policies in this area are following down the path earlier trod by Wal-Mart, the retail giant. When it comes to employer-based coverage, many employees are being told that they are on their own.
The broad outlines of the problem are clear enough. Working families are experiencing double-digit increases in the cost of health insurance. Employers are responding to growing cost pressures by shifting more and more health care costs onto workers. The nation’s most successful public health insurance program, Medicare, is increasingly under attack at a time when the lack of access to health care is already a crisis in America. Moreover, our health care system lacks safety controls that endanger front-line workers and patients. Staffing levels are dangerously low in many hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities.
If the health care problems facing average Americans weren’t bad enough, Congress enacted an expensive new prescription drug benefit that actually worsens conditions for millions of elderly Americans. Basic cost-containment features were left out of the program, mainly because they would cut into the profits that large pharmaceutical companies would make. Moreover, retirees are grappling with what Newsweek magazine calls “a mind-numbing array of choices” for enrolling in the program, known as Medicare Part D. MTD affiliates have responded by supporting grass roots organizations like the Alliance for Retired Americans, which has been active in educating the American public about the health care crisis facing this nation and in providing information on how the new Medicare Part D program works.
Organized labor has a number of common-sense solutions to the problem. Employers should pay their fair share of costs. All children should be covered. And, with Congress in deadlock over many issues, organized labor is trying to help curb runaway prescription drug prices.