OpEd: Divisive politics distract from the urgency of universal health care

Tevye Kelman speaking at the statehouse

Note: This OpEd by high school teacher, NEA and VWC member Tevye Kelman from Washington, VT, was published on June 23rd in VTDigger. Also, click here for Tevye's radio interview on Equal Time Radio. Photo credit: Isaac Grimm/RAD

If you’re someone who may need health care at some point in the next 10 years — i.e. all of us — it’s been a scary spring. In Washington, D.C., Senate Republicans are reportedly close to cutting a secretive deal to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a plan that nobody knows much about, except that it’s wildly unpopular and projected to leave tens of millions morbidly uninsured.

Closer to home, our governor has been holding the state budget hostage in an effort to force teachers to surrender their rights to bargain locally for health benefits. Although a last minute deal appears to have materialized to avert a government shutdown and preserve local bargaining, it’s troubling how successfully Gov. Phil Scott has been able to convince many working people that other unionized workers are their enemies.

When politicians are able to exploit legitimate anger over the inadequacy of our existing health care system to pit working people against each other, it undermines our collective ability to demand real reform. And real reform is still an urgent priority.

Despite the historic expansion of health care achieved under the Affordable Care Act, at least 28 million people remain uninsured. Millions more struggle to afford their premiums and out-of-pocket costs. The Republican plan would be catastrophic for working people, no doubt. But even if the bill never makes it out of Congress, we’ll still be faced with the problems caused by a dysfunctional, profit-driven health care system. Costs will continue to rise, more families will be unable to afford their premiums, and small businesses and towns will struggle to provide decent coverage to their employees.

The savage inequalities produced by for-profit health care are as real here in Vermont as anywhere else. Thousands remain uninsured or underinsured in our state, yet Blue Cross-Blue Shield has just asked for a 12 percent average rate increase in next year’s premiums. Poor people in Vermont will shoulder more than their fair share of these rising costs: a 2015 study found that low-income people pay an average of 20 percent of their earnings toward health care costs, while the wealthy pay 13 percent. It also found wide disparities in health care costs among people with comparable incomes, depending on whether they received coverage through their employer, the state exchange, or through government-sponsored health care.

I suspect that anger over these inequities drives much of the support for the governor’s tactics. That anger is real and valid. It’s not fair that we teachers have better coverage at lower cost than many of our students’ parents. It’s not fair that we have better care than our colleagues who work as paraprofessionals, in food service or in maintenance.

But we can’t fix this by weakening teachers unions, or making it more difficult for any workers to organize and bargain for a better deal. We all deserve to have health care we can afford. We need to resist attempts to scapegoat any of us as exploiting the system, when the reality is we’re all being exploited. We shouldn’t be angry with each other; we should be angry at a system that generates massive profits for pharmaceutical and insurance companies by putting a steadily rising price on our health.

When we argue whether teachers’ insurance plans are too generous, or if health care should be contingent on citizenship or employment status, or which pre-existing conditions are acceptable grounds for denying coverage, we are accepting the premise that some people don’t deserve health care. Arguing that we can’t “afford” single-payer, or believing that former Gov. Peter Shumlin’s bungling of financing universal health care “proves” it can’t work, assumes what we have now works and is affordable. Clearly that’s not the case.

There is a growing consensus in this country that health care is a human right. In Vermont, where public support for a single-payer system is particularly high, this right has been enshrined in law since 2011, when people got organized and successfully pushed the legislature to pass Act 48. But six years later, we are still stuck with an inefficient, inequitable and fundamentally unjust system that ensures insurance companies remain profitable, but fails to ensure universal access to affordable, quality care. Perpetuating a system that denies people access to care violates our collective values and the laws of our state. But that’s exactly what we’re doing when we engage in partisan battles for small dollar tax savings, pitting taxpayers and school boards against teachers and their union.

Whatever happens in this week’s veto session, I hope that it doesn’t mark the beginning of a new, ugly era in Vermont politics where the demonization of public-sector employees becomes justification for rampant privatization and union-busting. I hope, instead, it will be a turning point where working people in Vermont will see how damaging these divide-and-rule tactics are to our democracy and will reject them, recognizing that we’re all on the same side in the fight for universal health care. To get there, teachers like me need the support of the communities we serve as we struggle to protect our rights to affordable care and collective bargaining. But we also need to step up to demand that those rights are extended to our neighbors and the families we serve, who deserve them no less than we do.

Until that happens, we’ll stay divided and the health care system we all deserve will remain out of reach.