IAFF Criticizes Obama on Health Care Law Treatment of Multi-Employer Plans, Abandons Two Senate Dems for ‘Double-Crossing’ on Bargaining

WASHINGTON–Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger has again added his voice to those of other union leaders criticizing Democratic President Barack Obama’s health care law for its treatment of multi-employer health care plans.

He also says the union is walking away from two Democratic senators seeking re-election – Virginia’s Mark Warner and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan – because they double-crossed IAFF on a key vote on legislation telling states to recognize and bargain with unions representing first responders, such as Fire Fighters.  The measure fell to a Senate filibuster.

Schaitberger’s remarks are important because the Fire Fighters have high political credibility, with a track record of effectiveness in convincing voters, and because the union backs politicians of both parties.  IAFF calculates its membership is plurality-Republican, but at least 62% of its members went for Obama in both his presidential races.

“I have to call out the president on the development and implementation of the Affordable Care Act,” Schaitberger told his union’s 500 legislative conference delegates on March 17.  “We were offended and voiced strong and loud opposition to the ‘Cadillac tax’ on high-value health care plans, but it made it into” the ACA, he said.  The tax would start in 2018 for union plans.

But a bigger problem is the treatment of self-administered and multi-employer health care plans, notably the so-called Taft-Hartley plans that unions and management jointly run in industries such as construction and food processing.

Union leaders are telling the administration the Taft-Hartley plans do not get the same financial treatment the private insurance industry does, and are barred from competing for outside customers, too.  As a result, health coverage for 20 million people is in danger.

Schaitberger said some Fire Fighters’ plans are in the same boat.

“If the administration is unwilling to change and provide regulatory relief for self-administered (health care) plans, many of ours will be in serious jeopardy,” he said.

An IAFF fact sheet, which conference delegates carried to lawmakers on lobbying visits on March 18, explains each health insurer must pay a $63 per-person “bellybutton fee” on Jan. 1 to help cover the uninsured through the ACA’s exchanges.  But private insurers get rebates of the fees and the Taft-Hartley plans don’t.  And they can’t sign up new subscribers outside their defined groups of workers, such as Fire Fighters.

The administration would let the Taft-Hartley plans pay $52.50 per person on Jan. 1 and the rest late in 2015.  But they still don’t get the rebates the private insurers get.

Union leaders have taken their case to Congress and been in talks with the Obama administration about the discrimination against the Taft-Hartley plans.  But Democratic leaders are loathe to change the ACA.  Doing so would give the GOP – whose strident, unalterable opposition to the law makes it both a bugaboo and a campaign issue – an opening to really repeal it.  And the Obama administration has been uncooperative, too, Schaitberger said.

Warner and Hagan have been worse than uncooperative: They double-crossed IAFF on the collective bargaining bill, so it’s not supporting them for re-election this fall, even though IAFF is pushing to keep a pro-worker Democratic Senate majority, said Schaitberger.

By contrast, Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., who seek re-election in now reliably Republican states, voted for the legislation, so IAFF will be strongly out on the hustings for them this year.  It is already strongly supporting former Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., who seeks the open governor’s seat.  Ross gave a strong pitch to the IAFF delegates, too.

Hagan narrowly beat Sen. Liddy Dole, R-N.C., in 2008.  Before that election, Hagan addressed 800 delegates at the state Fire Fighters’ conference and pledged to support the collective bargaining bill.  The union, and Schaitberger personally, campaigned for her

But when the vote came, Hagan turned against the bill.  “She had the gall to say, ‘Sometimes things change,’” Schaitberger said.  “I even told her ‘We have it on tape.’”  Hagan faces another close race in the politically marginal state this year, especially after a 2010 Right Wing GOP sweep in North Carolina.  She won’t get IAFF support this time.

“I’ve made her a promise: She won’t get one damn dime, not one ounce of support, not one boot on the ground from this union because we won’t support those whose word is no good,” Schaitberger declared, to applause.

Warner, whom Schaitberger, a longtime Virginian, has known for 25 years – and whom the union backed in his races for Virginia’s governor’s chair and Senate seats, twice — also voted against the collective bargaining bill.  Before being elected governor, Warner promised IAFF to sign an executive order for collective bargaining for public workers, and then didn’t.  Warner apologized and promised, if elected senator, to support the nationwide bill.

The union, considering “the greater good,” supported him in his successful U.S. Senate race for an open seat.  Now, after his vote against the legislation, it won’t.

When Warner asked for a face-to-face meeting with Schaitberger about this year’s campaign, the union leader had his staff ask the senator’s staff “Is he sure he wants this?” Schaitberger said.

“I told him in no uncertain terms that he hadn’t earned his support and that he had lost our respect – and that our silence would be deafening” on the campaign trail.

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer