Health reform brings union closer to ‘dream’

Health care reform that lowers the cost of insurance for working people and companies is bringing organized labor closer to its goal, District 751 Secretary/Treasurer Susan Palmer said.

“We’ve dreamed about a day when health care would be off the table when we negotiate with our employers,” Palmer said. “That day is not yet here, but the new law moves us that much closer.”

Palmer was one of the speakers at a recent “Celebration of Health Care Reform” that was hosted by District 751 at its Seattle Union Hall. The event drew a packed house of close to 500 people, who came to cheer and listen to Washington political leaders who led the fight for health reform — and to ordinary citizens who will benefit from it.

One of the speakers was 11-year-old Marcelas Owens, the Seattle boy who became a rallying symbol for progressives — and a target from opponents on the right — when he spoke out on behalf of health care reform. Owens’ mother, Tiffany, died in 2007, of complications from pulmonary hypertension. The illness caused her to miss work, which led to her being fired from her job, which in turn meant she no longer had health insurance to pay for treating the disease.

The soft-spoken Owens has become a force in the national debate, said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. “I’m so proud of this little guy to stand up to people who would belittle him.”

And with conservatives like Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna threatening to sue to block the implementation of the new federal law, Owens’ role in the fight is not over, warned U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee.

“I can’t wait for the debate between Marcelas Owens and Rob McKenna,” he quipped.

Murray praised the volunteers for their work in support of the health care reform.

“Thanks to you, kids with pre-existing conditions can never be denied health care again,” she said. “Small business owners are finally going to be able to afford to cover their employees … and insurance companies won’t be able to charge you more for, well, being a woman.”

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell singled out labor unions for their support in “making sure we all knew health insurance was getting too expensive.”

“If we want America to be competitive, we need to drive down the cost of health care,” she said. “The other side thought that doing nothing was an option.”

The long and contentious health-care debate was “a very vigorous exercise in democracy,” said Inslee. “People expressed their hopes and fears, and some expressed outright duplicity — remember the death panels?”

But improving access to health care for all Americans lies at the nation’s very core, he continued. “In giving people the right to get health care despite pre-existing conditions, we have formed a more-perfect union,” Inslee said. “We have always moved forward as a country. Let us enjoy the fact that we are not going to go backwards now.”

Republicans who opposed the bill had had their chance when President Bush was in the White House and their party controlled Congress, said U.S. Rep. Brian Baird. They could have crafted health reform more to their liking — and they blew it. “Whose side are they on?” he asked. “Not yours, and not the America people’s.”

“They had six years and did nothing,” Baird added. “Barack Obama gets the job done in one year — yes, we can.”

The new law allows a half-million unemployed Washington residents to get health insurance, and will allow 150,000 small businesses get coverage for workers who couldn’t afford it before, said Gov. Chris Gregoire. “Nobody,” she vowed,” is going to stand in the way of Washington state being one of the first in the national to fully implement health reform.”

Attorney General McKenna can threaten all he wants, but Washington is moving ahead, Gregoire said. “We’ve hit the ‘send’ button and we’re going to fully implement all aspects of health reform.”

Cantwell agreed. “My message to our attorney general is he should innovate, not litigate.”

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