Public workers fight for health care

Huntington, W.Va. — Some 300 public workers and ­residents crammed into an auditorium in Cabell Huntington Hospital in Huntington, W.Va., on Nov. 17 to denounce proposals to fund a $120 million hole in medical benefits. The Public Employees Insurance Agency held the meeting, which was one of six across the state, to present their proposals for benefit cuts and to hear comments from the public.

Representatives of the West Virginia Education Association, the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, the American Federation of Teachers and other organizations were present.

The PEIA’s proposal would cut $83 million in benefits for active employees and nearly $41 million for retirees. Workers’ health insurance costs would rise dramatically. Annual deductibles would increase by $500 for state workers with individual plans and $1,000 for those with family plans. Out-of-pocket maximum costs would rise by $1,500 per year for one person and $3,000 for a family.

The proposed plan would change coverage for preferred brand prescription drugs. Copayments for the drugs have been $25, but the new plan would charge workers up to 30 percent for each prescription’s cost. Premiums for retirees would increase by 8 percent.

Danny Gray, president of the West Virginia Association of Retired School Employees, said the 8 percent increase would cause many of its members to face the “Do I eat, or do I take my prescription medication?” dilemma. He said, “These draconian changes would have a devastating impact, especially on those retirees who have had the audacity to live into their 80s or 90s and who struggle to live on low fixed incomes that have not changed since they retired.”

For five consecutive years, the West Virginia Legislature has not added new money to the program, despite PEIA adding 3,600 new employees and yearly increases in medical and prescription costs. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, has not earmarked any additional state funding for 2016. This all comes on the heels of tax cuts which have been enacted for businesses since 2009.

Arch reactionary Bill Cole, Republican candidate for governor, is on record as saying that the government should not fund public workers’ medical care. His party controls both chambers of the state Legislature and its members are talking about introducing right-to-work (in poverty!) legislation. Therefore, a progressive outcome to this crisis is unlikely.

Which way forward?

Some speakers promoted the idea of raising sales taxes on tobacco and soda to recover the necessary funds. Sales taxes, however, are regressive as they hurt workers and low-income people more than they impact the rich. Other speakers were closer to the mark when they called for raising property and business taxes, especially taxes on companies extracting natural gas. Fossil fuel extraction is a booming business that is destroying the environment.

Workers need to hear a revolutionary socialist perspective which explains that the needs of the working class cannot be met under the capitalist system. Marxists understand that capitalism cannot be controlled or properly reformed for the benefit of workers and low-income people.

What is needed is the removal of the profit motive from the health care system. A nationalized, planned health care system, placed under working-class control would guarantee free care for everyone and remove the need for private insurance altogether. Only socialism — where society bears the costs — can provide quality medical care for all. Cuba shows how this can be done.

Pyles is an organizer with the West Virginia Branch of Workers World Party.