Friday, January 13, 2006

Broader Discussions Needed

The yellow and blue hoods are back on the parking meters in Concord, signifying the legislature is back in session. Hearings have begun, and a certain amount of chaos reigns in the early weeks – akin to the returning to school after having the summer off. Our solons will be dealing with a number of hot topics this year, including health care (a perennial issue) and the new, hot topic of immigration.

NH is a small, but growing state. We have 1.3 million residents, according to our last census. Approximately four percent of our population is comprised of people of color. The 2000 census figures show our state to be 96 percent white. Given those statistics, it’s a little curious that there were over a dozen bills heading to the legislature to deal with immigration issues. We are not a border state. At most we may have a few thousand undocumented people in our state, which hardly seems to merit such an abundance of proposed law. Some of the legislation has been condensed, so now there are only 7 or 8 bills, which still seems a lot for NH.
Immigration has been seized by the extreme right as the next wedge issue, and they’re using it to scapegoat people with brown skin. There is absolutely no reason to try to turn NH law enforcement personnel into experts on immigration law, and the reading of immigration documents. Immigration is a federal issue. They are the experts. We’ve already seen cops engaging in racial profiling in some southern towns, and I wonder – is this who we really want to be in this state? Targeting undocumented immigrants leads to ethnic profiling of many immigrants, though not all. The only undocumented immigrants I’ve met in recent years are from Canada, and they aren’t prospects for profiling. There are 26 different varieties of immigrant status which are not immediately visible to a cop pulling over a car. Is this the best use of our law enforcement, our courts, and our state resources? The anti-immigrant folk have begun tying their issue to homeland security. Could someone please remind me how many Mexicans flew planes into the World Trade Center?
Once again, we’re going about solving a problem backwards. Instead of targeting the undocumented people who come here to try to have a better life – why aren’t we having a national dialogue about the abject failure of our trade policies and agreements? If NAFTA were working, people wouldn’t be literally dying to come here.

As always, a number of bills relating to health care will be dealt with this year. This past Wednesday, the Commerce Committee had a hearing on HB 1704, the Fair Share Health Act. HB 1704 calls for companies with more than 1500 employees to either spend a percentage of their payroll on employee health care, or pay into a state fund to cover more Granite Staters. Maryland, Rhode Island, and Washington all have similar bills in process. The consensus is that some big companies aren’t offering affordable health care to their employees. Interestingly, NH doesn’t collect the kind of data that would prove or disprove the assertions. There is a bill coming up that would require that data to be collected in the future.
It was an interesting hearing. The conference room was packed with lobbyists for various business associations and insurance companies. Those of us in attendance heard the history of the employer based health care system a couple of times, while business lobbyists were making the case that employers shouldn’t be responsible for providing health care for employees. One rather snide lobbyist tried to suggest that this assumption on the part of employees was really silly. A couple of legislators felt that people have the option of shopping around for an employer who provides good benefits, that indeed that is the responsibility of the worker. I hasten to add that none of those legislators were from the north country, where that kind of shopping isn’t an option for many workers. Representative Howard Dickinson of Conway was present for part of the hearing, and agreed that this might be a way to move forward in solving our state’s health care problems.
The employer based system began during WWII. It was a temporary measure, aimed at preventing the inflation that might have resulted in the tight labor market created by 15 million men joining the military. The system continued to expand after the war. Health care costs were considerably less back then, and during the Eisenhower days, many Americans spent their lives working for just one company. Corporate loyalty to employees was different then – CEO’s weren’t making 430 times more than their lowest paid employee. Pensions and health benefits were part of the package loyal employees received.
Those days are over. Corporate America wants out of pensions, and health care. Proponents of the “ownership society” believe that workers should purchase their own health care. Conservatives love the concept of the Health Savings Account, where workers pay into an account, and manage their own health care spending. This is a wonderful idea for the wealthy – but for folks struggling to pay the rent, not so wonderful. Worker wages haven’t kept pace with CEO wages. If they had, the minimum wage would be $23.50 an hour.
Once again, we are looking at solving a problem the wrong way. I don’t blame business for wanting out of the employer based system. It’s not working, and it’s not fair. When an employee leaves a company they lose their insurance – that’s not right. Representative Stepanek on the Commerce Committee mentioned several times that what data supporters of HB 1704 had might be flawed, because most businesses only ensure full time employees. Folks here in the valley know that all too well. Part time employees aren’t alive only part time – and those who have multiple part time jobs are mysteriously deemed to be not meritorious of insurance? It doesn’t make any sense.
It’s wrong for the business lobbyists to try to claim some sort of amnesia. We do, for now, have an employer based system of health care in this country. We should certainly be deciding whether or not to go forward with that. For now, we have to deal with the system we have. HB 1704 is not a perfect bill, but it is a place to start the broader conversations that we desperately need to be having.

“Let's face it, in America today we don't have a health care system, we have a sick care system.” Tom Harkin