Unions break ranks on ObamaCare

Labor unions are breaking with President Obama on ObamaCare.

Months after the president’s reelection, a variety of unions are publicly balking at how the administration plans to implement the landmark law. They warn that unless there are changes, the results could be catastrophic.

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The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) — a 1.3 million-member labor group that twice endorsed Obama for president — is very worried about how the reform law will affect its members’ healthcare plans. 

Last month, the president of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers released a statement calling “for repeal or complete reform of the Affordable Care Act.”

UNITE HERE, a prominent hotel workers’ union, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters are also pushing for changes. 

In a new op-ed published in The Hill, UFCW President Joe Hansen homed in on the president’s speech at the 2009 AFL-CIO convention. Obama at the time said union members could keep their insurance under the law, but Hansen writes “that the president’s statement to labor in 2009 is simply not true for millions of workers.”

Republicans have long attacked Obama’s promise that “nothing in this plan will require you to change your coverage or your doctor.” But the fact that unions are now noting it as well is a clear sign that supporters of the law are growing anxious about the law’s implementation. 


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Many UFCW members have what are known as multi-employer or Taft-Hartley plans. According to the administration’s analysis of the Affordable Care Act, the law does not provide tax subsidies for the roughly 20 million people covered by the plans. Union officials argue that interpretation could force their members to change their insurance and accept more expensive and perhaps worse coverage in the state-run exchanges.

Hansen, who is also the head of the Change to Win labor federation, told The Hill that his members often negotiate with their employers to receive better healthcare services instead of higher wages. Those bargaining gains could be wiped away because some employers won’t have the incentive to keep their workers’ multi-employer plans without tax subsidies.

“You can’t have the same quality healthcare that you had before, despite what the president said,” Hansen said. “Now what’s going to happen is everybody is going to have to go to private for-profit insurance companies. We just don’t think that’s right. ... We just want to keep what we already have and what we bought at tremendous cost.” 

If the administration were to expand the subsidies to cover the Taft-Hartley plans, it’s likely that the price tag for ObamaCare would rise, though it’s unclear by how much. 

Union angst over the healthcare law is being matched by some Democrats on Capitol Hill. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has said the law’s implementation could be a “train wreck,” while other senior Democrats, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), have expressed reservations. 

Both parties agree that ObamaCare is going to be a major issue in the 2014 midterm elections, especially because the bulk of the law is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1 next year.

Labor recently shared its concerns with senior Democrats.

Earlier this month, the subject of how multi-employer health plans would be treated under ObamaCare was brought up at a private May 8 meeting between union leaders and the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee.

“A number of people were making this point at that meeting. People said that their members are upset about this and the more they learn about it, the more upset they are,” said one union official. 

“I was pretty blunt about it,” said Hansen. “I told them it was a very serious issue. That it was wrong. Taft-Hartley plans should be deemed as qualified healthcare providers and I also said it’s going to have political repercussions if we don’t get this fixed.” 

Hansen wants the Obama administration to use its regulatory powers to address the matter; a legislative remedy is all but impossible in the divided 113th Congress. 

“When [the Obama administration] started writing the rules and regulations, we just assumed that Taft-Hartley plans — that workers covered by those plans, especially low-wage workers — would be eligible for the subsidies and stay in their plans and they’re not,” Hansen said. 

Union anger on multi-employer plans has been percolating for months. In January, The Wall Street Journal reported that UNITE HERE and the Teamsters were pressing the administration. UFCW was also mentioned in that report. 

Asked why he decided to raise the volume on his worries about ObamaCare, Hansen said he needed to speak out in support of his members. 

“I owe it to my members to do everything I can to see if we can make this law better,” Hansen said. 

He added, “[Administration officials] have given us a lot of time and attention. We just don’t agree and I still think that I have taken the correct position. They have been responsive as far as trying to get the meetings. It’s just we can’t get it across the finish line and we need to do that.”

Hansen, however, said he has no regrets about endorsing Obama or supporting the healthcare reform law. UFCW is a major Democratic donor, contributing to several of the party’s candidates and giving to last year’s convention in Charlotte, N.C., and this year’s inauguration. 

The union president said changes to his members’ health insurance might lead to problems at the ballot box for candidates.

“What happens in 2014 could be at issue here. ... There is going to be a lot of disenchantment with how did this happen and who was in power when it happened. No matter what I say, that’s going to be there,” Hansen said. “They are upset already and it hasn’t even taken effect already.” 

Sam Baker contributed to this report. 


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