Shafted: American Workers Lose Their Jobs and Their Health Insurance

Unpaid Bills

“The state will bear the financial burden of the people who have to stay home. We won’t add fear of bankruptcy or unemployment to the health crisis.”

Whoever said that ought to be the unanimous choice for president in 2020.  Was it Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, or some self-described progressive? Not on your life. These opportunists were otherwise engaged joining their friends across the aisle handing out trillions of dollars to undeserving already bailed-out corporations and banks. It was French President Emanuel Macron who stepped up to the plate to protect working people. And Macron is no bleeding-heart liberal. He is a dedicated neoliberal capitalist marching to the beat of austerity who has been the target of massive strikes (the yellow vest movement) against his battle to “reform” (aka downgrade) French workers’ pensions. He’s not the only European head of state saving lives. In Denmark, 75% of workers’ salaries will be subsidized by the government. In Sweden, workers will receive 90% of their salaries and work reduced hours thanks to heavy government subsidies.

Even the leader both Republicans and Democrats love to hate, Vladimir Putin announced that Russian workers will retain their salaries, homes and access to healthcare coverage during the pandemic.

What about the promises U.S. leaders have made — a one-time payment of 1,200 ($500 for children), loans that may or may not materialize for small business owners in time to keep their businesses afloat, a few extra goodies attached to unemployment although for many jobless the benefits won’t arrive until May. Catastrophic for the 40% of Americans who even in good times cannot afford a $400 emergency expense.  Food banks for millions of American families who can no longer afford groceries, while large corporations, the airline industry, fossil fuel and defense companies, even the cruise industry (aka campaign donors to both parties) and banks stuff trillions onto their already overflowing bottom lines.

Losing Health Benefits

The real calamity for the American workforce not shared by workers in any other advanced economy — their inability to get the healthcare they need when they need it regardless of their employment status. For 56% of Americans (2017) with employer-provided health insurance when they lose their jobs, they lose their health insurance. For at least seventeen million U.S. workers who have already filed unemployment claims, getting sick may well be a death sentence. “The shutdown of the American economy continues and we expect Great Depression job losses before the worst is over” (Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Union Bank). James Ballard, President of the St Louis Federal Reserve fears that the U.S. unemployment rate could reach 30%, job losses not seen since the 1930s.

In the last thirty years, employer provided health care has been a boat taking on water. The pandemic makes a bad situation worse. Prior to the outbreak, 40% of the workforce with insurance had “affordability issues” (Motley Fool), including difficulty paying their medical bills before their deductible was satisfied, surprise medical bills not covered by their insurance, prohibitively expensive prescription drugs and premium costs that in the last ten years have increased 54% overall, while workers’ were forced to pay 71% more for the same crappy coverage. In fact, “workers making $25,000 a year have to shell out $7,000 a year just for their share of family premiums.” (Drew Altman, CEO, Kaiser Family Foundation) Now workers face more perilous times. In the absence of even the rudimentary health insurance offered by most employers, uninsured families live with the fear that unpaid medical bills will ruin their lives.

Medicare For All

Medicare-for-all is the answer. But how do Americans get there? Is it Joe Biden who will lead us to the promised land? At the Democratic debates he rejected Medicare-for-all and put his muscle behind that expensive rip off, the industry-friendly Affordable Care Act that was neither affordable nor caring. In a bid to woo Sanders’ supporters, he has floated the idea of lowering the Medicare age from 65 to 60. Right, change you can believe in.

But wait, he wasn’t the only blockhead running to be the Democratic presidential nominee whose views were in line with health insurance industry lobbyists. Amy Klobuchar got off the Medicare–for-all train at the first stop — “[with Medicare-for-all] we will no longer have private insurance as we know it. And that means that 149 million Americans will no longer be able to have their current insurance. I don’t think that’s a bold idea, I think it’s a bad idea.” Pete Buttigieg another neo-liberal who can’t see the forest for the trees proposed some jerry-rigged contraption— “I’m proposing Medicare-for-all who want it… I’m thinking… about union members who fought and negotiated for good plans they have today. They don’t want to have to abandon those plans because Washington tells them they must do that in four years or less. It doesn’t make sense.”

You know what doesn’t make sense? Tying health coverage to jobs. Even without millions of lost jobs, the plight of the average worker under a burdensome system of employer health insurance sucks. Workers sacrifice wage increases to keep their employer health insurance. Union bosses, working from the same script as employers, emitted nary a peep when employers raised the ante by introducing deductibles. Today, one quarter of all insured workers and one-half of small business workers must shell out thousands in deductibles before their insurance kicks in. (“Employer Health Insurance is Increasingly Unaffordable,” New York Times, 9/25/2019).

For the 48% of U.S. workers formerly employed by small businesses more challenging times lie ahead. Along with the loss of their jobs and the health insurance tied to it, once the pandemic is over, they may never get their jobs back. Many small businesses are in rough shape with over one-half having less than one month’s worth of cash set aside even before the pandemic. Many of them will never reopen, others will be forced into bankruptcy and a large proportion will be bought out by corporations profiting from government welfare.

Health Insurance Costs

More bad news for U.S. workers — “Insurance premiums could spike as much as 40 percent next year, a new analysis warns, as employers and insurers confront the projected tens of billions of dollars in additional costs of treating coronavirus patients. (NYT 4/1/2020). Believe that one and I’ve got a lovely little bridge and a mansion in the middle of a swamp to sell you. First of all, insurance companies are making out like bandits by the cancellation of all elective surgeries —joint replacements and other procedures. Second, all the “free” care provided to the uninsured and underinsured will eventually be billed to the patient or the feds will step in to rescue another multi-billion-dollar industry.

How much longer will the American people put up with a healthcare system run amuck? Maybe now is the time to take advantage of a national emergency to start a real revolution. Time to organize not in the streets (that will come later) but in our homes, building networks of supporters, creating a peoples’ bill of rights. Organizing and speaking in one voice to the political establishment, both Republicans and Democrats, provides leverage to remake this country as a real democracy starting with Medicare-for-all. “National health insurance will probably come to the United States after a major change in the political climate—the kind of change that often accompanies a war, a depression, or large-scale civil unrest.” (Professor Victor Fuchs, Stanford University)

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