'Unchecked influence of health industry lobbyists' means bill could be weakened in the future, union's reps say

The newly-formed nurses' "mega-union" has issued a scathing indictment of the Senate health bill expected to be voted on this week, calling it a "deeply flawed" piece of legislation that could make the US health care system's problems worse.

National Nurses United, the US's largest nurses' union since it was formed earlier this month, issued a statement Monday implying that it doesn't support the health care reform bill championed by the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

“It is tragic to see the promise from Washington this year for genuine, comprehensive reform ground down to a seriously flawed bill that could actually exacerbate the health care crisis and financial insecurity for American families, and that cedes far too much additional power to the tyranny of a callous insurance industry,” said NNU co-president Karen Higgins, a registered nurse.

The nurses' statement implied that it would be better if Congress passed no reform legislation, rather than the current proposed bill. NNU co-president Deborah Burger dismissed arguments that the bill can be improved in the future, and that it marks the start of a comprehensive overhaul of the US health care system.

“Those wishful statements ignore the reality that much of the expanded coverage is based on forced purchase of private insurance without effective controls on industry pricing practices or real competition and gaping loopholes in the insurance reforms,” said Burger.

And Jean Ross, another NNU co-president, said it's likelier that the health care bill will be weakened, rather than strengthened, in the coming years, "due to the unchecked influence of the health care industry lobbyists and the lessons of this year in which all the compromises have been made to the right.”

The NNU's statement lists what it sees as 10 major flaws with the bill, including the bill's mandate requiring individuals to purchase health insurance, without doing enough to reduce insurance costs; no limitations on health insurance monopolies in certain states and cities; and "reduced reproductive rights for women."

The NNU also points to little-discussed provisions in the bill it says put the lie to the idea that the bill will stop insurance companies from canceling policies on account of pre-existing conditions.

-- Provisions permitting insurers and companies to more than double charges to employees who fail “wellness” programs because they have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol readings, or other medical conditions.

-- Insurers are permitted to sell policies “across state lines”, exempting patient protections passed in other states. Insurers will thus set up in the least regulated states in a race to the bottom threatening public protections won by consumers in various states.

-- Insurers can charge four times more based on age plus more for certain conditions, and continue to use marketing techniques to cherry-pick healthier, less costly enrollees.

-- Insurers may continue to rescind policies for “fraud or intentional misrepresentation” – the main pretext insurance companies now use to cancel coverage.

National Nurses United is a member of the umbrella labor group AFL-CIO. Last week, the AFL-CIO's president, Richard Trumka, called the Senate health bill "inadequate and too tilted toward the insurance industry." The NNU's criticism this week indicates that the labor movement is lining up against the Senate version of the health bill, which -- unlike the House version -- doesn't include any sort of public option.

Earlier this month, as the union was being formed, NNU Co-President Burger criticized the health bill -- even before the Medicare buy-in was removed.

"What we've got now isn't really health care reform, it's a reshuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic as far as our patients are concerned, and we're going to make sure that we ... have universal health care that is truly universal and has eliminated the insurance companies," she told Reuters.