ARTICLE: Single-payer health care would benefit patients and workers, union leaders say, Crains

By Jennifer Henderson, Oct 24, 2019

Local union leaders addressed concerns Wednesday over single-payer health care, saying it would benefit patients as well as health care workers.

They did so at a joint Senate and Assembly hearing on the New York Health Act, which was held at the Bronx Library Center.

Though arguments against the legislation, which would be funded through progressive taxation, have included that industry workers will lose their jobs or go without wage increases, union leaders said there are ways to mitigate such results.

"The members of our union see the consequences of our broken health care system every day," said Dell Smitherman, downstate political director at 1199 SEIU, who testified at the hearing. That includes people arriving at emergency departments at advanced stages of a disease because they don't have access to primary and preventive care, he said, as well as families being forced to make choices about maintaining health care coverage or paying for other necessities.

Though 1199 SEIU has a national benefit fund that provides comprehensive health insurance to its members and their families with no out-of-pocket costs, Smitherman said: "We recognize that what we have been able to win at the bargaining table is more and more rare; across the country, out-of-pocket costs for health care consumers have been rising."

In New York 1.1 million people are uninsured and more are underinsured while many pharmaceutical and medical device companies are seeing double-digit profit margins, and insurers have benefited from a congressional tax overhaul, he said.

"It is true that our benefit fund would no longer provide health insurance under a single-payer plan, like New York Health. That would require major organizational change on our part," Smitherman said. "But our leaders and our members know that winning universal health care for all and ending the suffering for far too many under the current system would be worth that disruption."

Smitherman also testified on the potential effects of single-payer health care on hospital revenues and jobs.

If reimbursement rates under a single-payer system are consistent with current public payer rates, the number of safety-net hospitals in financial distress from not having a significant number of private-payer patients would "spread much more broadly and lead to a reduction in access to care and significant job losses," he said.

Though health care jobs will be affected as the industry focus shifts toward community-based services, job loss can be lessened by teaching workers to be peer or nutrition coordinators, for instance, or community health organizers, he said.

"Our benefit fund and training fund can continue to work with the state and other partners to make sure that we transition workers into that future," he said.

Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of the New York State Nurses Association, testified in support of single-payer health care.

"The current system is designed to compromise care rather than provide it," Sheridan-Gonzalez said. It would be ideal to have a national plan, but there needs to be a starting point for single-payer health care, she added.

Under the New York Health Act, "we believe that we would be able to negotiate raises because we don't have to worry about health care," she said. For instance, rather than health care being an additional factor to fight for, more energy could be put toward improving salaries and working conditions, she said.

Aside from union leaders, Dr. Mitchell Katz, president and CEO of New York City Health + Hospitals, provided testimony at Wednesday's hearing, kicking off the event.

As a physician, "a single-payer system would allow me to spend more time on caring for patients and less time on filling out forms and fighting with insurance companies," Katz said.

A single-payer system would broaden health care coverage, he said, and help to reduce the administrative burden felt by safety-net hospitals.

For all the support, however, single-payer health care is met with strong criticism.

An organization called the Realities of Single Payer, which counts the state Health Plan Association among its members, said in a statement issued Wednesday that 150,000 workers would lose their jobs should the legislation be implemented, having a "ripple effect on local economies."

"The members of the Realities coalition are supportive of adopting ways to make coverage more affordable and to get every single New Yorker covered," the coalition said. "Let's fix what is broken instead of blowing up the entire system and replacing it with an even more expensive, experimental, government-run system."

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