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The Lower Your Pay, the Less Coverage You Have

The Cruel Economics of Health Care in America

by SETH SANDRONSKY

The cost of U.S. health care has climbed 43 percent over the past nine years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This price increase is close to double the over-all inflation rate of 26 percent in the same nine years.

We are looking at an inflationary trend that negatively affects the living standards of the nation’s working people. And the lower U.S. workers’ hourly wages, the more negative the impact, as they are less likely to have employer-provided health care to begin with.

Increasingly, state politics reflects the ill effects of the U.S. health system on the working populace. Recent health-care legislation in Massachusetts is an example.

On the other side of the country, California state Senator Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) crafted Senate Bill 840 to provide all Californians with high-quality, comprehensive health care. Currently, six million people in the state have no health-care coverage.

Against this backdrop, those with health care coverage in California and nationwide are paying more for doctor visits and medicine. Meanwhile, health-insurance premiums are rising.

SB 840 passed both houses of the state Legislature on its way to the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. As expected, he vetoed the legislation.

"SB 840 relies on the failed old paradigm of using one source–this time the government–to solve the complex problem of providing medical care for our people," said the Republican governor in a press statement.

Presumably, the government can only make bad matters worse for health-care consumers. Accordingly, the complexity of health-care delivery is best left to market forces.

SB 840 would have established the state government as the single payer of health insurance premiums. Private insurers would have been eliminated.

The day of the Schwarzenegger veto thousands of public-sector workers in Sacramento County went on strike in the biggest such labor action in decades. The main reason they walked out of work was to protest county management’s push to shift more health-care costs on them.

The county workers’ fear of health-care inflation was well-founded. That these striking workers eventually went back to work and traded wage increases to bear more of the cost for health care is in no way the end of this local story with national relevancy.

The commonality of U.S. workers coping with the crisis of the health-care market is growing. Whether in or out of labor unions, a mass of wage-earners across the nation can not help but see more clearly with each passing day their actual place in the health-care system that corporate America (for-profit hospitals and health maintenance organizations, and drug companies) owns and controls.

A U.S. health-care system that is broken as far as hourly workers are concerned functions perversely well for a relatively few companies who profit from this set-up. Such understanding occurs in small steps among the working majority who will in the end have to mobilize on the basis of their class positions to win universal health care from ruling circles of economic and political power.

The upper class forces trying to prevent that outcome are weak in number and strong in resources. In 2006, this situation harkens back to past times in U.S. history that have spawned a working-class politics to better people’s living standards.

SETH SANDRONSKY is a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action and a co-editor of Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper. He can be reached at: ssandron@hotmail.com.