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2007-02-09

Wal-Mart Joins Business, Labor Coalition for Universal Health Care

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Wal-Mart — the nation’s largest retailer — has formed a coalition with labor unions and other larger corporations to call for quality affordable health coverage for all Americans by 2012. The coalition includes AT&T, Intel, Kelly Services, the Service Employees International Union and the Communications Workers of America. We get analysis from Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Jeanne Lambrew and Healthcare-NOW! National Coordinator Marilyn Clement. [includes rush transcript]

Wal-Mart — the nation’s largest retailer — has formed a coalition with labor unions and other larger corporations to call for quality affordable health coverage for all Americans by 2012. The coalition includes AT&T, Intel, Kelly Services, the Service Employees International Union and the Communications Workers of America. Three public policy groups are also backing the campaign, dubbed Better Health Care Together. Wal-Mart’s CEO Lee Scott said "Our current system hurts America’s competitiveness and leaves too many people uninsured."

  • Service Employees International Union president Andrew Stern.

We’re joined now by two guests:

  • Jeanne Lambrew. Senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an associate professor at George Washington University where she teaches health policy and conducts policy-relevant research on the uninsured, Medicaid, Medicare, and long-term care.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer, has formed a coalition with labor unions and other large corporations to call for quality affordable health coverage for all Americans by 2012. The coalition includes AT&T, Intel, Kelly Services, the Service Employees International Union and the Communications Workers of America. Three public policy groups are also backing the campaign dubbed "Better Health Care Together." Wal-Mart’s CEO Lee Scott said, quote, "Our current system hurts America’s competitiveness and leaves too many people uninsured." This is SEIU president Andrew Stern.

ANDREW STERN: Today, I stood on the stage with leaders of American business, civic organizations, a former senator, to say it’s time for every American to have quality affordable healthcare. I stood with Lee Scott, the CEO of Wal-Mart, a moment I never would have expected would have happened in my life, along with business leaders from Intel and Kelly Service and AT&T and another union leader from CWA. We stood together for a very simple reason. We share a common value and belief that by 2012, every man, woman and child in America needs to have quality affordable healthcare.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Stern, SEIU president.

Jeanne Lambrew, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, joins us now from Washington, D.C. The Center is a member of the coalition. We’re also joined by Marilyn Clement here in New York. She is the national coordinator of Healthcare-NOW! We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Jeanne Lambrew, let’s begin with you. Talk about this unusual alliance, the one Andrew Stern said he never expected he would be a part of.

JEANNE LAMBREW: Sure. Well, it’s a very exciting time, because, for a change, the facts are really driving leadership. What we know is that we have 47 million uninsured Americans, including nine million children. That’s up by seven million since the year 2000. This is not just a healthcare crisis, this is a business crisis. By next year, health benefit costs will exceed profits in the Fortune 500 companies, and if we look at companies like Starbucks, they’re spending more on health benefits than coffee beans. It’s no longer just a healthcare crisis, it’s an economic crisis.

And what’s exciting about this coalition is that they’re really picking a specific goal and picking specific targets, which is, we need to bring business leaders, not Washington-based associations, not the usual strange bedfellows, to the table to say we need to add business leaders, labor leaders, thought leaders to this campaign. We need to put pressure on politicians, and we need to have a specific goal of enacting legislation, so by the year 2012, we solve this crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Marilyn Clement, your response, of Healthcare-NOW!?

MARILYN CLEMENT: Well, we welcome Wal-Mart and other large businesses and SEIU into this struggle for a national healthcare system. We think 2012 is way too long from now. We need healthcare now. People are desperate. Desperate. And 18,000 people are dying every year, simply for lack of healthcare coverage of any kind. And so, think about how many thousands of people will die between now and 2012. So we’re putting forward a single-payer national healthcare system for everybody that would cost a lot less money. Think about every dollar you spend on healthcare: one-third of it now goes to the insurance companies for their profits, their administration, their advertising, their lobbyists, so if we take that one-third that we’re now spending on spurious — we don’t need them, we don’t need the insurance companies —and that would cover literally everybody who is uncovered in the United States for a lot less money and provide for the kind of system that most countries in the world, most of the advanced countries in the world, enjoy. So we’re saying, join us. We’ve got the plan. We love having businesses come on, and major labor unions. Actually, SEIU’s very large union in Chicago yesterday joined our campaign, Local 73. So we’re looking forward to having everybody join us.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Jeanne Lambrew, I would like to ask you, this is really an astonishing coalition, given the fact that Wal-Mart has been the poster child now for anti-union activity in the labor movement for years, and, unfortunately, SEIU declined to participate or have a spokesperson be on this show, but I would like to ask you: in terms of the impact of having a company like Wal-Mart get involved in a program like this.

JEANNE LAMBREW: Well, as I think Lee Scott said himself in the discussions the other day, he is the head of the largest company in the world, yet this problem is bigger than Wal-Mart. This is a problem that needs to be addressed, in part, through national action. And we need to kind of figure out how we take these shared goals, which we clearly share with Health Care for All, and translate that into action. I mean, we’ve been talking about healthcare and our health crisis for a long period of time. Finally, the business community is coming to the table, not through Washington-based associations, but their own leaders coming up and saying it is time to act.

And I think that with that kind of momentum, we can bring along the politicians who have been stuck in the special interest world of Washington, which really, you know, bogs down change. We need to share the goal of trying to get everybody into the system, promoting value and improving quality, but we also need to be practical about it and figure out how to get from here to there. We think that this coalition can really spearhead, you know, setting that table so we can get our leaders, our new president potentially in 2009 and people around the nation agreeing that the time has come.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But what about this issue of setting a goal of 2012, which seems quite a bit far off, given the nature of the crisis right now?

JEANNE LAMBREW: Well, absolutely. It’s something that we struggled a lot with. There was a citizens’ working group that went around the country and tried to figure out what is a realistic goal. That was the goal that it said this is the goal that this group adopted. But I live in Washington, and right now, we’re fighting to prevent a budget to go into effect that would reduce the number of uninsured kids. We’re moving backwards in Washington, D.C., at the edges. We need to figure out first how we shore up our existing programs, then how we kind of build the consensus, so that we don’t have what happened about a decade ago. I was involved in the Clinton administration effort, where we tried mightily, but failed, to reform the system. It’s hard. It’s major social change. This is like, you know, 1965, when we created Medicare and Medicaid, only bigger. We need to figure out how to do this and do this right, and we think that 2012 is a realistic goal to cover everybody in the system, the legislation happening before then to make it happen.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Jeanne Lambrew, about the comment of Wake Up Wal-Mart, a group that is a watchdog of Wal-Mart, as well as UFCW, United Food and Commercial Workers. Wake Up Wal-Mart said, "If Wal-Mart is truly serious about universal healthcare, we challenge it to provide universal healthcare to all of its uninsured employees and make universal healthcare a litmus test for its political contributions. We await their answer." Your response?

JEANNE LAMBREW: Sure. I can’t speak for Wal-Mart. I work at the Center for American Progress. I am an academic. But I will say that we, in the US, are fairly unique, in that we have this expectation that goes back decades that our employers will do what government has failed to do, which is to provide affordable access to health benefits. The truth is, the unions — AFL, SEIU before, when it was part of it — were really instrumental in making that happen. But both costs have gone up at such a rate that it’s very difficult for businesses to continue do that, and vice versa. We’ve seen the economy change. We have many people who are, you know, part-time workers in kind of the new entrepreneurial jobs, independent contractors, who simply cannot get coverage through an employer-based system. So employers should do the best they can for their employees, and it’s a necessary part of the system, but it’s not sufficient. We need to kind of build on what we have today, but also create new systems for the people who can’t access employer-based coverage. We think it’s bigger than that. We think we need to kind of move towards a 21st century health system.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Marilyn Clement, what about — what would it take this time? Obviously, more than a decade ago, there was a failed effort in the first Clinton administration. What would it take this time around to actually, especially now with the coming presidential race, put this at the top of the agenda, healthcare reform and universal health insurance?

MARILYN CLEMENT: Well, it’s already at the top of the agenda for the voters. The voters made very clear last fall in all of the polls: we want healthcare for everybody. We would prefer a government plan that would provide healthcare for everybody. And one of the big bugaboos has been that people have raised the issue of the uninsured — the uninsured is sort of the only problem — but those of us who have good insurance know that we maybe don’t have good insurance. We go to the hospital. We find, first of all, we’ve got a 20% co-pay, which, you know, if you’ve got a huge healthcare bill, you know, you’re paying a huge amount of money. So the voters have said this is what we want.

We have a bill in Congress, HR 676 — that’s John Conyers’s bill — that, as it was reintroduced last week, had almost fifty members of Congress, more than any other healthcare plan that has been put forward. And we believe that we can push forward with this. We’re calling on Congressman Rangel’s House Ways and Means to hold hearings in April to begin to hold hearings to put it on the table, to help people understand it, and then to — you know, if it passes in the Congress or if it’s pushed forward in the Congress, it’s still up to Bush to respond. Will he veto? Will he, you know, whatever? But whatever, it is absolutely going to be a key issue in the 2008 election, and then we hope that a 2009 president will pass it in 2009, begin to implement it, because people are desperate.

AMY GOODMAN: Marilyn Clement, you’re here in New York. One of the leading presidential candidates is from here, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, well-known during President Bill Clinton’s time as the person who put together this healthcare proposal that very much preserved the insurance industry. How does that fit into this conversation?

MARILYN CLEMENT: Well, I don’t see any indication that she has changed her view, and it actually, you know, helped to create the major, major problem that we now have. I think it was well-intentioned. I think people really — you know, everybody wanted so much for there to be a successful national healthcare plan at that time, the people who were suffering under this system. But, in effect, it underscored the system and encouraged the health insurance industry, which we just don’t need. It’s a concept that is hard for people to get their heads around, that we don’t need insurance companies. We can have just insurance. We can have healthcare for everybody without having insurance companies.

AMY GOODMAN: How is the industry organizing now, the insurance industry? This must be an enormous wakeup call, when you have Wal-Mart joining with SEIU and the others.

MARILYN CLEMENT: Well, I don’t know the answer to what they’re doing after the Wal-Mart announcement yesterday, but I know that they’ve been putting forward over and over again, whether it’s the Massachusetts plan, you know, where they basically wrote the plan, the Schwarzenegger plan. All of the plans that are evolving state by state by state, you see these plans that have the government paying for people to purchase insurance and mandates that force people to purchase insurance and in the language, a personal responsibility, which is just opposite to what we, as a nation, where we ought to be, in terms of our common responsibility to each other. And the idea of having the hugest pool, the purchasing pool of 300 million of us who could challenge the drug companies, who could challenge the medical equipment companies, I mean, we could have a great healthcare system.

AMY GOODMAN: Marilyn Clement, thanks so much for being with us, national coordinator of Healthcare-NOW! And thanks to Jeanne Lambrew with the Center for American Progress.

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