June 2003, Op-Ed in Rutland Herald and Times Argus

By Sue Lucas, RN, President of United Nurses & Allied Professionals Local 5109 at Copley Hospital

As someone whose job is to heal people when they are sick and keep them healthy, my heart aches because our healthcare system is not working. We need a universal health care system that covers everybody, not one which is becoming too expensive for most of us.

Simply put, our health care system is in a crisis state. We all know some of the obvious reasons, but as a Registered Nurse, I am acutely aware of the damaging working conditions which are actually forcing good, caring medical personnel out of the industry, making a bad situation all that much worse. I take pride in the level of care I can give those patients I am responsible for, and who are sick and in need. But all too often, systematic short staffing compromises our ability to provide the quality of care we were trained to do.

And I know of the growing number of people who are sick or hurt that don’t even make it in to see us! There are over 40 million people in the United States who do not have health insurance of any kind. There are tens of millions more who are underinsured. For those of us who do have health insurance, premiums are escalating rapidly, with employers increasingly passing the costs on to workers. Employers are seeking to insulate their profits from the health care crisis by forcing their workers to pick up the tab. According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, employee premium contributions for single coverage grew by almost 27 percent on average and for family coverage by 16 percent from 2001 to 2002, when total premiums for job-based coverage grew by 12.7 percent.

The problems are both local and national. Last November, Fairbanks Scales in St. Johnsbury provoked a two-week strike by demanding drastic increases in workers’ contributions towards health insurance premiums. In January, workers at General Electric struck for 2 days over the issue of health insurance – the first nationwide strike at GE since 1969. But, while companies like GE and Verizon are hugely profitable and could easily afford to absorb increased health insurance costs, many smaller, non-profit and public employers with limited budgets are caught between the rock of increasing costs and the hard place of workers who simply cannot afford to contribute any more out of their own pockets.

In our beautiful state, the state programs that act as band-aids on our broken health care system – VHAP and Dr. Dynasaur – are threatened because of the government budget crisis. As premium contributions and co-pays for these programs rise, their beneficiaries – most of whom are children – will forego needed preventative care. From my work, I see firsthand that people who do without preventative care are more likely to end up in the emergency room. This drives up the total costs for the system. And they don’t come in for sniffles.

We need universal coverage of health care. Not only because health care is a basic right that should be available to everyone, but also because it makes financial sense. The General Accounting Office in 1991 stated that, “If the United States were to shift to a system of universal coverage and a single payer with the authority to oversee the healthcare system, the savings in administrative costs would be more than enough to offset the expense of universal coverage.”

The movement to fix the health care system and develop one which is universal is growing. Ohio Congressman and Presidential Candidate, Dennis Kucinich, has introduced a universal healthcare plan. Locally, last September, over a thousand Vermonters flooded Montpelier for a universal health care rally called Prescription For Change. A new coalition – the Coalition for Vermont Universal Healthcare System – is working to bring more groups in Vermont together to make a new healthcare system happen.

Seeing the ills of the current approach first hand, day in and day out, health care workers are also organizing to fix the current system and move to one which treats people as patients, not consumers. In the face of the corrupt and misguided administration at Vermont’s largest medical institution, the RNs at Fletcher Allen Health Care have formed a union and are now bargaining a contract which will prioritize quality patient care over profits. (Community members are invited to join them as they rally for a fair contract at Fletcher Allen’s main entrance on Colchester Avenue on June 21st at 3:30 P.M.) We nurses have also begun a Justice for Healthcare Workers campaign with the Vermont Workers’ Center. Our goal is to unite healthcare workers across the state in an effort to pass quality patient care legislation and support healthcare workers’ ability to organize unions across the state.

On June 5th, the workers at GE, Verizon, and other workplaces throughout New England are holding a Health Care for All Action Day and will wear stickers saying “Health Care For All: No Cuts in Benefits or Services.” As part of this action day, the factory workers who are members of UE Local 234 and work at Fairbanks Scales in St. Johnsbury will work with other community groups to hold a vigil for universal healthcare at 4 P.M. A movement of workers, the uninsured, seniors, small business owners and health care providers is beginning to build strength. We need to stand together to demand a solution to fix a broken system and provide affordable quality healthcare for us all.

Sue Lucas, RN is the president of United Nurses & Allied Professionals Local 5109 at Copley Hospital and helps coordinate the Justice For Healthcare Workers Campaign of the Vermont Workers’ Center. With questions or comments call 802-229-0009 or email info [at] workerscenter [dot] org.