Western PA Progressives vs. Blue Dogs on Health Care


Photo:L-to-R, Randy Shannon, Ed Grystar, Lou Hancherick, Jason Altmire, Tina Shannon

Progressive Democrats
Take ‘Medicare for All’
To Congressman Altmire

By Carl Davidson
Beaver County Blue

Progressive Democrats and labor unions in the 4th Congressional District west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania held a special meeting on health care reform Aug 20 with Congressman Jason Altmire at the Beaver County Community College Student Union in Center Township. The roundtable discussion with Altmire was pulled together by the 4th CD Progressive Democrats of America (PDA).

The discussion was civil but the issues were sharply posed. If Altmire votes against the Weiner Amendment for single-payer health care (HR 676) when it comes to the floor in Congress in a few weeks, it won’t be because he hasn’t heard strong and passionate arguments for “Medicare for All.”
Seated around a large conference table were nearly 20 representatives of important grassroots players in the district’s politics—the Beaver County Labor Council, United Steel Workers union, the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, the Electrical Workers Union (IBEW Local 712), Western PA Progressive Network, Western PA Coalition for Single Payer Health Care, the PA Association of Staff Nurses, PDA, Beaver County Peace Links, and several others.

“We all know why we’re here,” stated Tina Shannon, 4th CD PDA Chairperson. “Our people are hurting. The economic crisis is taking away our jobs and health care, and the insurance companies are making matters worse. We want everyone here to speak their minds, so Congressman Altmire knows exactly what we want from him.”

Lou Hancherick from Democracy for America in Butler County started off by denouncing the current health insurance system as a “trap of the insurance companies.” “It’s really modeled on slavery, at least for many of us. You’re bound to your employer, even if it’s a lousy job and you have better prospects elsewhere. If you’re older or have what they call a ‘pre-existing’ condition, you often can’t get insured with a new employer. You can’t start a business, so it hurts job creation as well.”

Bob Schmetzer from the IBEW spoke up next. “People need health care. But they don’t need insurance companies taking more than 20 percent in administrative costs while single-payer plans like Medicare take two or three percent. “Real death panels exist already; they’re called insurance companies denying coverage.”

Then Schmetzer delivered the warning of the hour from labor. Referring to both the outgoing and expected incoming presidents of the AFL-CIO, he added that “both John Sweeny and Richard Trumka have been very clear. We’re going to examine every vote in Congress, and those that don’t come through for us shouldn’t expect any support when reelection time comes around.”

“I know you’ve stated your concern for health care costs,” said Tina Shannon to Altmire when her turn came. “So I’ve done some research about how single payer has been rated over the years.” She delivered a wealth of statistics and a timeline going back decades showing  that proposed legislation on single payer scored better than private insurance every time for delivering wider coverage at less cost.

Why does single payer win on costs, Shannon asked? “Because single payer doesn’t have to deliver profits to insurance companies. From 2000 to 2006, the insurance companies’ profits doubled. Kaiser alone reported that it paid some $96 million just to its top four consultants. For what? Think of what could have been done with that!”

Shannon was followed by Dr. Joe Talarico, an anesthesiologist from Zelienople in Butler County, and chair of the Western PA Progressive Network. Talarico focused on the quality of health care, arguing that the insurance companies had little regard for it.

“I’ve never had an insurance company even talk to me on the quality of services I delivered,” he said. “But I have been nudged by Medicare.” Government responsiveness to demands for quality, he added, had turned around the VA hospital in Butler from what was once “basically a detox center for alcoholics 30 years ago” to what is now a medical center with some of the highest quality care in the country. “And remember,” he concluded, “with the VA, you’ve got socialized medicine that reaches beyond single payer. It refutes the claim that government can’t do anything positive.”

“It’s been downhill ever since Reagan,” followed Sandy Moore, a nurse from New Castle, PA and a member of the Lawrence County Progressive Democrats. “Under our existing privatized system, we’re faced with more sick people and fewer nurses. From the things I’ve seen with school children ill and with no insurance, doing away with school nurses is truly frightening.” Addressing Altmire directly, she concluded with, “What’s the problem with people having an option to the insurance companies?”

Cathy Gatian, a PDA steering committee member and lab technician residing in Center Township, reminded Altmire of a recent painful episode in local health care, the closing of the former Aliquippa Community Hospital.

“Like the No Child Left Behind Act, this legislation you’re proposing, the ‘Quality First Act,’ would reward state-of-the-art, well-endowed urban hospitals and penalize already distressed small rural and non-urban hospitals. Quality healthcare is needed in rural and non-urban areas too. In Aliquippa, we benefitted from access to a community hospital built by the steelworkers. In the current market-based medical system, this gem in our industrial community was swallowed up and spit out by UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center). Aliquippa Community Hospital is gone. It no longer exists. The building it once occupied is vacant.”

“By contrast,” Gatian added, “HR676 provides for regional allocation of operating budgets, capital expenditure budgets and reimbursements to clinicians. It also establishes the Office of Quality Control. Therefore with Medicare for All, small communities like Aliquippa, rather than being punished could enjoy the highest quality healthcare service.”

Next up was Janet Hill, from the USW staff and also a PDA member from Beaver, PA.

“We have a healthcare emergency,” Declared Hill.  “Fifty million people have no health insurance, and lack of economic security has led to even more people having their care delayed or denied.  Many companies are going bankrupt, and anyone employed at a bankrupt company loses their insurance.”

“Insurance companies are inefficient and wasteful,” Hill continued.  “Twenty to 30 percent of health care dollars are going to administration and profit – not to health care.  This is just a private tax by insurance companies on the majority of people who have health insurance.  The American people wouldn’t accept that kind of overhead in charities so why should we in health care?   Is there any benefit for the people being taxed?  At least with gas taxes, I get to drive on the roads.  No, it goes to people like Dale Wolf, the head of Coventry Health Care who made 20.86 million last year.”

Randy Shannon, PDA’s Treasurer, focused on the role of health care in the economy. “About 10 percent of all jobs, and 12 percent of all wages,” he explained, “are part of providing health care and maintaining its infrastructure. But the existing setup is irrational. If we had single payer over private insurance, the extra money going to healthcare instead of insurance would create 2.6 million new jobs and $317 billion in new business revenues. Direct healthcare spending of one dollar creates three dollars in the economy.”

Del Linville, a former Obama campaign volunteer from Ambridge, pointed out that most young adults do not have healthcare, but in other countries everyone is covered. “Where is our compassion? This is an uncaring system. Congress is not cutting costs by leaving the insurance companies in the system.”

Maryanne Weaver, a Democratic Committee member from New Castle pointed out that Altmire needs to take into account the needs of the people if he wants to get re-elected. She pointed out that his election was won by a coalition that included progressive and center Democrats that he cannot afford to lose. She also condemned the waste in insurance company advertising and profits and the $1.5 million per day lobbying expenses to prevent health reform.

Ed Grystar, the co-chair of the W. PA Coalition for Single Payer Healthcare, and an organizer for the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses & Associated Professionals pointed out that private corporations are taking over community hospitals and eliminating nursing staff and cutting pay and benefits to nurses.

He added: “Real reform just can’t happen under the domination of the insurance companies. They’ll turn any public option into what we call ‘junk insurance.’ It’s got so many holes in it and such high co-pays that it’s worthless.”

“Their idea of reform,” Grystar continued, “is to force those without insurance to buy ‘junk’ insurance. More guaranteed customers for insurance companies, less real coverage, and more profits. It’s a welfare program for the insurance companies, while we get nothing worthwhile.”

At this point, Altmire engaged the discussion. “When it comes to health care, first of all, I’m a ‘deficit hawk,’” he led off. “Any plan that increases our deficit, I will oppose. Any plan that doesn’t, I will give a fair hearing.” The “deficit hawk” label is one Altmire pinned on himself when he recently joined the ‘Blue Dog’ caucus of right-leaning House Democrats, a move that didn’t sit well with the local labor forces who helped his campaign.

“To your credit, you’ll get an up-or-down vote on single payer” Altmire continued, referring to the recent deal struck by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with the twenty percent of Congress backing HR 676 and the movement behind them. “You’ve won that. But that also means HR 676 will be ‘scored’ by CBO, the Congressional Budget Office, as to what it would cost. They are tough, but fairly objective. If HR 676 comes out as not increasing the deficit, then I will have to look long and hard at it. But until it’s scored, we’re in a holding pattern.”

“Many of you here think I’m in the pocket of the insurance companies because of their donations to my campaign,” Altmire continued, dealing with that topic. “But let me assure you, that’s not the first thing I think of when the words ‘insurance companies’ crosses my mind.” He went on to tell how he was denied coverage for reconstructive knee surgery from old sports-related injuries.

Altmire also insisted he wasn’t simply a nay-sayer on health care reform.  “I don’t want us to end up with nothing, for all the reasons stated here tonight.” He shared a story of a confrontation at a Town Hall session where “a very angry woman got in my face, very upset. She didn’t want to pay for anything for people who had no insurance. ‘It’s their tough luck, she said, they should have made better choices in life.’ I decided to reply by telling her that she was already paying for the uninsured, in the most inefficient and most costly way, when they showed up at emergency rooms.”

“She suddenly softened,” Altmire added,  “and told me she had learned that was true after examining a bill for a recent hospital procedure she had been through. ‘I checked every item, and every one was way overcharged. When I asked why, they told me they had to charge more from those who could pay, to make up for those who couldn’t pay.’ So in this way, I could find some common ground that things couldn’t stay as they are.”

Despite being interesting and insightful, Altmire’s comments were hardly disarming to those at this meeting.

Tina Shannon responded that the true cause of the high hospital and other medical bills is the for profit delivery of healthcare and the insurance company overhead. Charlie Hamilton responded that we have a really good single payer system already – Medicare.

“We understand deficits, borrowing from the future,” said Randy Shannon, replying to Altmire’s central argument. “We also know that they’re not always bad. It’s one thing to go out and run up the credit card buying cases of beer. It’s something else altogether to spend and invest the public’s money in providing medical care and building new health facilities. The latter has a multiplier effect, adding new value and new growth in the economy that brings back two or three times the amount initially laid out.” Shannon referred Altmire to a new study on the role of health care spending as a positive economic stimulus.

Marion Prasjner, a PDA steering committee member from Raccoon Township, and president of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), followed up. “It’s not just about money. All these 45 or 50 million people uninsured—this is all wrong. In the steelworkers, we learn that we help each other, and only by helping each other, do we all get ahead. There’s a moral question here. It’s terrible, all these ads they’re running on TV—Me, me, me, it’s all about ‘me.’ All then all these people getting rich from it. It’s not about cost; it’s about greed. And that makes it a class struggle. If that’s what they want, so be it. They’re not going to win that battle. But thank you for listening, Congressman.”

As the session was winding down, Jerry DeSena, a PDA activist from Aliquippa, took the floor. “We want to remind you that the city councils of both Aliquippa and Ambridge have passed resolutions in favor of HR 676, and they urge you to vote for it.” She handed Altmire copies of the resolutions with the official seals.

Although Congressman Altmire was warned by several people not to support a bill that mandates citizens to buy private insurance without a low cost public option, he did not commit to voting against such as bill. He also did not commit to supporting the Weiner amendment.

When reminded that HR 676 was actually a net revenue saver, Altmire stated that previous versions of HR 676 had spending caps while the present version did not. This statement is untrue, as there has never been a limit to healthcare benefit coverage under HR 676. Altmire also stated that a health insurance co-op would have the same value as a public Medicare option, although this position has been thoroughly discredited because the coops will not have the size to compete with private insurance.

Although the meeting did not move Altmire, it did show him that there was a wide and deep alliance of progressive Democrats and union members who expect him to support serious healthcare reform by expanding Medicare. It also served to strengthen the unity of the coalition fighting for healthcare reform in the 4th Congressional District. And it enabled the groups to come together and argue their positions for single payer healthcare.

Through efforts like these, and more to come, the popular alliance for decent health care for all becomes more conscious, more united and stronger and keeps drawing more allies to its side. Meanwhile those on the other side are more constrained, less credible and wind up painting themselves into a corner. It’s time for Altmire to consider the class nature of the vast majority of his constituents. Their interests are not the same as the insurance companies and banks that would sabotage and deny public health care for all. Otherwise he might find that his ticket of admission to the Blue Dogs has a very steep and not-so-hidden delayed price to pay.

One thought on “Western PA Progressives vs. Blue Dogs on Health Care”

  1. No one has stepped forward to offer a write-in alternative to Altmire in the May 18 election. If a group of four or five would work as a committee with me, I would make the effort. Let me hear from your group soon. Health care is a deal breaker.

    Tom Clifton
    805 Scott Ave.
    Glenshaw, PA 15116

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