For David White, a small business owner in Bar Harbor, Maine, the health care crisis is doubly personal.
For one thing, he was proud of being able to cover the full cost of health insurance premiums for his employees at MDI Imported car repair service. But in 2002—a year in which his company experienced a record profit and in which he considered giving his employees a generous raise—he instead had to lay off one of his employees for six months, reduce the amount of coverage he offered and increase costs. That was because the company’s health insurance premiums that year doubled, more than eating up the increased profits of his business.
“I was literally in tears laying this out to my men, and I am not fond of crying in front of my men” he said in a news conference Tuesday, where he was telling his story at the announcement of the Health Care for America Now! Coalition.
After that news conference, he revealed that his parents, both over 70, until recently held jobs — his father driving a school bus until a stroke left him unable to do so — just so they could have health coverage. His mother finally retired earlier this year, now that she is eligible for coverage as a retiree under the school system’s health plan. “I know many people in that same situation,” he added.
White’s personal experience galvanized him to action, which is why he was in Washington to appear at the Health Care for America Now! event at the National Press Club alongside representatives from labor and citizen activist groups.
Richard Kirsch, the director of the coalition, said that so far about 116 organizations have signed up in solidarity with the coalition’s principles, which include coverage for the nation’s 47 million uninsured, the ability to choose between well-regulated private plans and a public plan, equity in access and effective cost controls.
The central mission of the coalition is to build the kind of mass movement Kirsch said did not exist when then-first lady Hillary Clinton tackled health care reform in 1993, only to see the effort shot down in a fusillade of advertising and lobbying from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.
Leaders of the coalition are vowing that that won’t allow that to happen this time, and they have pledged a $40 million effort over the coming months to set the stage for a reform effort in Congress and the White House in 2009.
“The people in this coalition represent the deepest single-issue coalition in modern American history,” said Jeff Blum, the executive director of USAction, who went on to call the health care reform movement “the human rights movement of our time, a movement that transcends race, class and geography.”
“Today we’ve got a message for our elected officials,” said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “If you put profits ahead of patients, get out of the way. Don’t tell us about reforms that lack a guarantee of coverage. Don’t tell us about taxing the health care benefit employees receive on the job. Don’t tell us that insurance company practices don’t need to be regulated. Don’t tell us that $10,000 deductibles are OK.”
Conservatives have courted business owners like White with promises of low taxation and deregulation, but health care is an area where progressives and the small business community can forge common ground. Leaving the insurance industry to its own devices certainly hasn’t worked for small business; deregulation has actually saddled small business owners who want to provide good benefits for their employees with costs that they cannot reasonably bear.
When entrepreneurs and their workers look at the policies now being presented to them during the election season, they are seeing that the choice is between a practical plan for affordable, universal health care and a plan that conservatives call “choice” but is really individuals sweating it out on their own in a hostile private insurance market, with nothing but a meager tax credit that will cover only a fraction of their premiums.
One thing that the movement will need is more people like White to tell their stories—from business owners to seniors who work well past retirement age just so they can have adequate health insurance coverage. “There’s a role for government in this that only we—the backbone of America— can hold it to,” White said. “I’m here to say that we can’t afford not to.”