Unions should support health care reform, but many aren’t


Why are New York City public unions betraying their 250,000 retired members? Why are active members not protesting this betrayal, knowing that they are likely to be next?

Without consultation, city unions will cut $600 million from retiree benefits by switching them from traditional Medicare to Medicare Advantage plans in the next six months, following 2018 negotiations between union leaders and the city’s labor relations office.

Yes, the city and the unions will save some money, but it won’t slow the tsunami of rising health care costs. And retirees then will face dramatically increased financial and health risks.

Ironically, by harming retirees, the Municipal Labor Commission is degrading the value of union membership.

The word among retirees is that these Advantage plans are fine as long as you don’t get seriously sick, as long as you don’t need specialized services, as long as you don’t mind switching from doctors you trust to the ever-shifting network of Advantage doctors and hospitals.

“Basic city (retired) workers in the $30,000 to $50,000 (salary) range have lower Social Security payments, their pensions are smaller, and they’re going to get hit badly by this,” observes Dr. Len Rodberg, himself a retired CUNY professor and now research director for Physicians for a National Health Program’s New York metro chapter.

According to the group, “Medicare Advantage plans replace an equitable public system and its mission to serve the public with a private system that sees medical costs as a loss. Medicare Advantage is the most lucrative niche in the insurance market, taking in far more revenue than what’s spent on patients.”

Apologists for this Advantage “benefit” claim theirs will be “better” than other Advantage plans.

Are they naïve? Traditional Medicare has overheard costs of between 2 and 3 percent, meaning that 97 percent of the revenue collected pays for health care.

Contrast Medicare Advantage plans that average 12 to 14 percent overhead costs — for administration, marketing, chief executive salaries in the tens of millions, and profits (which doubled during the pandemic).

Let’s stop the propaganda: Medicare Advantage plans limit spending to between 84 and 86 percent of their revenue. Worse, they cost us taxpayers far more than traditional Medicare — audits show routine up-coding and fraud.

How could the union and city save money for themselves and their members?

The New York Health Act improves traditional Medicare, covering everything Medicare covers, plus more. It covers all medically necessary care — prescriptions, vision, dental (including dentures), hearing (including hearing aids), mental health (including substance abuse treatment). And long-term care. At home.

And not just for retirees. It’s one comprehensive plan for everyone. It saves money for workers, unions, employers and the city — and 90 percent of taxpayers.

Incredibly, unions are joining with insurance companies and hospital conglomerates — traditionally antagonistic to workers — to frighten us about the New York Health Act. They claim that single-payer funding will take away Medicare, ignoring the irony that that is precisely what these union leaders are themselves doing to retired members.

The Municipal Labor Commission, now betraying and misleading retirees, has been ignoring membership for years. Contrast responsive-to-membership unions like the New York State Nurses Association; 1199 Service Employees International Union; 32BJSEIU; the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union; and the United Auto Workers all actively campaigning to benefit members by supporting New York Health.

Workers know health care is destroying American lives — lose your job, lose your health care; watch premiums double over the past decade, and out-of-pocket costs quadruple, causing 50 percent of insured New Yorkers to delay needed health care.

New York Health will save both the union and the city far more than $600 million. Economists estimate the city will save 10 percent of its budget under New York Health, and union welfare funds could exit health care. With health benefits off the bargaining table, unions could negotiate for higher wages and better job conditions.

Municipal Labor Commission union leaders have unashamedly lobbied against New York Health in Albany, including privately siding with for-profit insurance behemoths and “angering rank-and-file members.”

Using “union preferences” as cover, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins refused to bring New York Health to a floor vote despite having majorities supporting the bill in both chambers, hundreds of good-government groups urging them to pass it — from the League of Women Voters to municipalities across the state, to dozens of physicians and health care societies, and tens of thousands of constituents supporting it.

Ask your union to quit this deal and to support the New York Health Act. Call our city councilman, Eric Dinowitz — a member of the aging committee as well as the civil service and labor relations committee — at (718) 549-7300. Encourage him to speak out against this deal, and to reaffirm the city council’s 2018 unanimous support for the New York Health Act.

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Barbara Estrin,