Friday, January 8, 2010

Progressive Caucus: Fight for Us!

The Benefits of the Public Option and Other Progressive Health Care Reforms
Thursday, January 7, 2010 , 2pm-4pm,

Remarks by Ellen R. Shaffer

(I was invited by Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s office to present the case for an ERISA waiver as part of the health reform bill. Following are my comments.)

Thanks to Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee; Raul Grijalva; Donna Christensen; and Hank Johnson for organizing today’s briefing.

I am a policy analyst. I worked in the past in the Senate. In 2009 I helped craft the ERISA amendment that passed in the House Education and Labor Committee, building on the great work of others in the House and Senate, and with the support of the California Nurses Association.

As Co-Director of the Center for Policy Analysis, I coordinate the EQUAL Health campaign for Equitable, Quality, Universal, Affordable health care. We sponsor a listserve, analyze proposals, and conduct district legislative visits. Our list reaches progressive health reform advocates, women’s organizations, public health groups, as well as Congressional staff and the media.

Topics today:
Why it is important to fight for and win an ERISA waiver.
More broadly, why it is important to fight and win for progressives.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) is a:federal law that pre-empts the rights of states to enact legislation if it is “related to” employee benefits plans, as well as for other reasons.

It was passed in 1974 at a moment like this one, when Congress expected to pass national health reform, and sought to limit state variations. It has been used in the years since then by employers to initiate court challenges to a wide range of reforms that would require them to contribute to the cost of health benefits.

It is unusual among laws involving health care in that there is no administrative remedy built in to ERISA. Only Congress can take action to definitively change ERISA. Because it has not done so, Hawaii sought and won an ERISA waiver for its state law in 1983, in order to be able to continue its employer mandate system. There has been no subsequent amendment on this subject.

Why progressives must fight for an ERISA waiver

We know how progressives are feeling this week.

We have been encouraged by the statements of Quad Caucus leaders, that we wanted single payer, and the public option is our line in the sand.

At the same time we watched the Senate turn down an abortion amendment, and then be forced to include it.

After winning a victory in committee on an ERISA waiver for single payer states, we saw it fall from HR 3692.

We’ve watched Joe Lieberman move from supporting expanding Medicare, on the air, as recently as September, to hijacking the public option.

We know that your offices did your best to respond to requests for a floor vote on a single payer bill.

We hear that maybe we can get a public option next year, by a majority vote. And maybe we can.

But we also know that the health reform debate is developing as a contest for power.

Progressives cannot emerge from this debate demoralized.

Victory breeds victory. Leadership summons participation.

Progressive leaders have a real opportunity to stand fast for significant policies that we know will make a real difference in people’s lives.

There are a number of important issues on the table, that will vastly improve the health reform bills. These include:
• the public option,
• a strong employer mandate, and affordability protections including adequate subsidies,
• a nationally based health exchange,
• fair financing
• and a strong stand on reproductive rights and immigrants’ rights.

I hope you’ll get a chance to look at our op ed on some of these important issues.

But we know that at best all of these provisions are a step towards a system that is truly universal, controls costs, and improves quality. The fight for single payer systems will move immediately to the states, where there are already strong and successful movements in California, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, New Mexico, Ariona, and elsewhere.

These campaigns face the same obstacles as the national effort: massive industry spending and opposition, corporate media, the need for organizational bases.

They face one additional obstacle: ERISA.

Single payer advocates around the country are energized around amending this arcane piece of legislation, for two reasons.

First it will make a real, immediate, significant difference in their ability to enact and implement single payer bills. Without an ERISA waiver, single payer states face at a minimum automatic court challenges that could drag on for years.

Equally importantly, it will demonstrate that progressives can and will fight hard, and win, for changes that are fundamental.

This battle has implications far beyond health reform – in itself important enough.

We know we are entering the new decade with a sputtering economy, and a controversial war. We will need a mobilized, energized leadership, and a mobilized, energized base, to take these issues on and win them.

We know the opposition. They are relentless in the minority. They have demonstrated what they will do when in the majority. They cannot be defeated by lukewarm campaigns.

Progressives must have a health reform bill and it must be one we will celebrate at the end of the day. Your offices can demonstrate the leadership and the determination to fight for and win a provision that will be celebrated daily by advocates around the country as our fight for universal coverage continues. Please fight for the ERISA waiver.

[Post-script: An ERISA amendment would be an important victory. The EQUAL campaign continues to advocate for the full range of policies identified in this presentation.]


  1. Lets be serious, government run healthcare would be a disaster as most other programs they run are. The healthcare plan will cost 2.5 trillion over 15 years and will devastate our economy.

    I for one do not buy into the idea that the government can be trusted to do the right thing with something so personally critical.

    We must begin any heathcare reform with lawsuit reform and allowance of free competition between insurors (currently prohibited).

  2. Nothing the government is running is done as well as the private sector. Due to tax liens, the government took over a prostitution house in Nevada (Where it's legal) and a horse track gambling operation in New York and they are losing money on both of these sure fire money making business models. Why on earth would anyone think that the government can do a better job in healthcare ? No honest person believes the government is a viable solution.

    It is time to vote out Queen Sheila Jackson Lee and others who are ruining our country. Rather than replacing her with another worthless Democrat disguised as a moderate, vote in a real man, John Faulk, who will stop this insane government expansion.