If you want to know why the single payer movement is having trouble breaking through in the United States, look no further than Leo Gerard.
From 2001 to earlier this year, Gerard was the president of the United Steelworkers of America.
Then earlier this month, just a few months after retiring as head of the union, Gerard joined the board of Highmark Health.
How can it be that a major American union leader who says he supports Medicare for All single payer, who says he grew up under a single payer system in Canada and “knows the benefits,” who wrote earlier this year that “with a single-payer system like Medicare for All, every American would have the safety and security of health insurance” — how can it be that a professed single payer supporter would join the board of one of the largest health insurance companies in the nation?
A company that is a dedicated opponent of single payer?
A company that would be wiped out under a single payer system?
How can that be Leo Gerard?
“There are all kinds of single payer,” Gerard said when we reached him this week. “Haven’t you been watching the Democratic debates? There are different ways of doing it. I’m going to be the labor voice on the board of directors. Highmark is there now. I don’t know if the single payer thing will come to pass.”
Will you be a voice for single payer on the board of Highmark?
“I’m done with you,” he says.
Rank and file union leaders say that Gerard is symptomatic of a dysfunctional single payer movement and a corporatist union movement.
Ed Grystar is with the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Single Payer Healthcare.
“Gerard has previously done TV commercials for Highmark. He now sits on their board,” Grystar said. “This is incompatible with supporting Medicare for All.”
“Especially when support for Medicare for All is rising, why would a retired union president give credibility to an insurance company that is opposed to single payer?” Grystar asks.
“There are over 500 unions that have endorsed Medicare for All. Why not use his time to publicly organize labor support for single payer?”
“Single payer means just that. One payer and the elimination of private health care insurance companies. They provide nothing of value to the health care delivery system. Tens of billions of dollars can be saved and utilized for patient care with their elimination. Health insurance companies are a dead weight on the system. They don’t comfort the sick or take care of the injured.”
Dan Kovalik was an associate general counsel at the United Steelworkers Union for 25 years before his retirement earlier this year.
Kovalik says that Gerard has always been close to Highmark.
“As president of the union, he even did television advertisements for Highmark. He has been endorsing them for years,” Kovalik said.
“It creates the appearance of impropriety. It is troubling. The labor movement is corporatist. It has been for a long time. It has been more focused on getting along with the companies instead of fighting them.”
“Highmark doesn’t employ steelworks. It’s non union and will never be union. The unions never have pushed for single payer. They didn’t even push for a public option. The unions have never aggressively supported it.”
Kovalik said that “President Richard Nixon would have green lighted single payer, but the AFL-CIO actively opposed it.”
“The unions are still negotiating employer based health care. That is one thing they can sell when they are organizing. That is one thing that prevents them from having full throated support for single payer. Unions were not even willing to push for even the public option. They didn’t want to offend anyone. If Bernie Sanders is pushing Medicare for All, the unions will rhetorically go for it. But if Joe Biden becomes president, they won’t push for it. They value their access to people like Biden, they won’t jeopardize that. Some of it is that the unions are so weak that they tend to overvalue access to institutions. Which is why Leo continued to do ads for Highmark and is now on the Highmark board. Part of it is feeling you have access to power.”
(Gerard says he was not paid for the Highmark ads and is not being paid to be on the board of Highmark.)