Labor union frustration boils over with president on ObamaCare

Unions are frustrated the Obama administration hasn’t responded to their calls for changes to ObamaCare.

Labor has watched with growing annoyance as the White House has backed ObamaCare changes in response to concerns from business groups, religious organizations and even lawmakers and their staffs.

They say they don’t understand why their concerns so far have fallen of deaf ears.

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“We are disappointed that the nonprofit health plans offered by unions have not been given the same consideration as the Catholic Church, big business and Capitol Hill staffers,” Unite Here President D. Taylor told The Hill.

It's an issue that Obama may have to face when he speaks to the AFL-CIO convention a week after Labor Day.

Most unions backed ObamaCare’s passage, but labor argues provisions in the law could cut employee hours, unfairly tax their plans and force workers off their union health plans into the law’s potentially more costly insurance exchanges.

The central issue is union members, who are among the roughly 20 million people who use nonprofit multi-employer “Taft-Hartley” health plans.

Unions want the administration to change ObamaCare so that those plans are treated as qualified health plans that can earn tax subsidies. Under the administration's interpretation of the law, the multi-employer plans are not eligible for the subsidies.

Without those subsidies, employers may have the incentive to drop the plans and force workers onto the insurance exchanges.

“The Democrats have completely given the store away to the for-profit industry,” Taylor said. “Without any question, we have a scenario set up that ObamaCare has turned all the money over to the for-profit plans and the nonprofit plans will fade away.”

Unite Here represents about 250,000 workers at hotels, casinos, stadiums and the food service industry. Taylor estimates that 200,000 of his members are on the Taft-Hartley plans.

Unions also argue that the law creates an incentive for employers to cut back on work hours for employees. Under ObamaCare, companies have to provide healthcare coverage to workers who work 30 hours or more a week — which could lead some employers to cut back on employee hours to avoid the requirement.

An AFL-CIO official said the labor federation supports a change to ObamaCare that extends the employer's healthcare coverage requirement to workers working less than 30 hours per week.

Unions also have problems with a “reinsurance” program to help early retirees that's financed by contributions from healthcare plans.

The administration says it is committed to making the healthcare law work for those on Taft-Hartley plans, but has not offered to make any changes to the law so far that would meet union concerns.

The administration has tweaked the law to address complaints from other groups.

Religiously affiliated groups will not have to cover birth control for their employees as the administration originally intended. Business groups lobbied hard to delay an employer insurance mandate for a year. And congressional aides and lawmakers’ health plans will continue to be subsidized by the federal government under ObamaCare, thanks to proposed guidance.

Unions’ lobbying to change the law has grown louder as open enrollment approaches for the exchanges.

“With open enrollment set to begin on Oct. 1, time is of the essence, so we are working hard every day to find a solution to protect our members' healthcare,” said Tim Schlittner, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).

Schlittner estimates that about 500,000 members of the 1.3 million-strong UFCW use Taft-Hartley plans.

“We continue to have a dialogue, but we haven't found a solution yet,” he acknowledged.

Unite Here, the UFCW and the Teamsters pressed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to address their concerns in a July 11 letter.

Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, wrote in a July 18 letter to Obama that the law threatened his members’ health benefits.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) said that without changes to the law, their members could lose their healthcare plans.

In addition, the Nevada AFL-CIO passed a resolution in August urging Congress and the administration to make changes to protect Taft-Hartley plans.

Unite Here was the first national union to endorse Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary, but Taylor warned there could be a backlash if the administration doesn’t meet their concerns.

If they lose their health coverage, his members “will blame the people who passed that bill and did nothing to fix it,” he said.

“The administration has found resolutions for a whole variety of issues, and the fact that their biggest supporters will be put at the mercy of the for-profit insurance industry will leave a very bad, bad taste,” Taylor said. “You can't blame the Republicans on this one. This is a Democratic bill through and through.”