Wellstone Pushes Health Care Plan

Congress should guarantee all Americans the right to quality, affordable and comprehensive health care coverage, US Sen. Paul Wellstone said at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee on Oct. 4. The Minnesota Democrat pressed his universal health care proposal, "The Health Security for All Americans Act" (S. 2888), which was introduced this summer and is endorsed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the nation's largest health care union with 1.4 million members.

"In this time of unparalleled economic prosperity, every American certainly ought to have the right to see a doctor when they need to, a doctor of their own choosing," said Wellstone. "It is high time that the right to quality, comprehensive health care become a reality for all Americans, regardless of their wealth or income. And it is time that all Americans be free from the fear of catastrophic illness wiping them out financially or of being denied the care they need."

The bill would allow states to decide how to provide affordable and comprehensive health care coverage for all Americans, but it would insure the uninsured, guarantee affordable health care by limiting out-of-pocket expenses and guarantee a minimum benefit package equal to that enjoyed by members of Congress. It also provides strong patient protections.

"The health insurance industry, using all of its clout and its legions of lobbyists, took universal health care off the nation's agenda. But with this proposal, and with the grass-roots power of organized working men and women throughout the country, we are going to put health care for all Americans back on the agenda," Wellstone said.

"Our plan tells states and governors to choose their way to universal coverage, and then backs up that promise with the federal support necessary to help get them there. This plan is both decentralized and comprehensive," said Wellstone. "We insist on minimum standards &endash; the same ones members of Congress enjoy. We set the national goal of quality, affordable, comprehensive, universal coverage, but we invite the states to tailor it to the needs of their people. This approach is flexible, but we do not give up on the principle that every American has a right to affordable, dignified health care."

During the first four years, the existing Child Health Insurance Program would be expanded to provide coverage to uninsured adults and children in families with income under $50,000 per year, or states could choose to cover everyone. Premiums and out-of-pocket costs would be based on income, with no premium for families earning below $25,000 a year.

The federal government would provide states with funding from a variety of sources, including the federal budget surplus. States would have broad options for funding their share, including their own budget surpluses, tobacco settlement funds, closing tax loopholes, or new revenue sources.

After four years, states would have to make sure that everyone is covered. Families would get coverage either through their employer or from a plan offered through a state insurance pool. Employers would provide at least 80% of the premium cost, and union members could negotiate with their employers to cover the employee share of the premium and co-payments.

For more information see www.seiu.org or phone Wellstone's office, 202-224-8440.

NUKES SEEK NEW 20-YEAR LEASE. In a hushed quest to allow 85% of the nation's nuclear reactors to work beyond mandatory retirement, the nuclear industry talked the federal government into allowing a generic 20-year extension on the life of reactors, J.A. Savage reported Sept. 25 in the Albion Monitor. The public only has until October 16 to let the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) know what it thinks of the plan to allow license renewal instead of decommissioning. The only public meeting on the re-licensing plan was held at the NRC's Maryland headquarters. The government's process effectively shuts out any public input on extending plant licenses, said Public Citizen senior policy analyst Jim Riccio. "Most of the public is not aware of the issues until they land in their laps, by way of their local nuclear plant." See the whole story or comment via the Monitor web site (www.monitor.net/monitor) or write: Chief of Rules and Directives Branch, Division of Administrative Services, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington DC 20555-0001; or call the NRC at 1-800-368-5642.

HARD FACTS ON SOFT MONEY. When Rick Lazio and Hillary Clinton took a "no soft money" pledge, agreeing to get their allied groups to call off the attack ads, the web site TomPaine.com noted, they make a brazen confession: That they do, in fact, play a central role in raising and coordinating soft money for their own benefit, which violates federal election law. "Candidates taking the pledge are really saying: I'll stop breaking the law if you stop breaking the law," TomPaine.com noted.

"It shows just how far we've fallen," says Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger. "Candidates are congratulating themselves for agreeing to limit illegal money in their campaigns!" Common Cause, bypassing the toothless Federal Election Commission, has filed suit in federal court, alleging that Democrats and Republicans are flouting soft-money rules (www.CommonCause.org).

WELLSTONE DEMANDS ADM-IBP MERGER SCRUTINY. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) upon learning that Rawhide Holdings Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of DLJ Merchant Banking Partners III, L.P has reached an agreement to acquire the stock of IBP Inc. for approximately $3.8 billion, promised that he would "press federal antitrust officials to scrutinize" the proposed acquisition. Because the investment group includes ADM, Wellstone speculated that ADM may double its present 13.3% stake in IBP if the deal goes through -- which IBP confirmed to Dow Jones NewsService.

Wellstone fears that family farmers could be "squeezed" by the same company that sells them grain and buys their fed livestock in what he called "an ADM-IBP merger that would signal an unprecedented case of vertical integration. ADM is one of the biggest feed producers in the world -- they make the inputs. IBP is one of the largest packers -- they take the outputs. So family farmers will be squeezed in the middle.

"I will call for close antitrust scrutiny," he promised. "How much more concentration has to occur in agriculture before we demand a moratorium?" Wellstone asked.

By an overwhelming 71-27 vote the US Senate earlier this year defeated an amendment by Wellstone to impose an 18-month moratorium on mergers within corporate agribusiness. -- Al Krebs

JUDGE NIXES FRANKENFOOD LABELS. A federal judge Sept. 29 dismissed a lawsuit by critics of agricultural biotechnology who want the government to require labels on foods made with genetically engineered crops. Unless the agency decides biotech ingredients are materially different from conventional products, it "lacks a basis upon which it can legally mandate labeling, regardless of consumer demand,'' US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly wrote, according to the Associated Press. The FDA policy, which considers gene-altered crops to be essentially the same as those produced by conventional breeding methods, was established in 1992 by the Bush administration and has been defended vigorously by the Clinton administration. FDA officials announced this spring that they would propose mandatory safety reviews of new gene-altered products but they insist they still believe the foods are safe. Such reviews are now on a voluntary basis. The biotechnology industry has been on the defensive in recent weeks because of a nationwide recall by Kraft Foods last month of taco shells that were found to contain a variety gene-altered corn that hasn't been approved for human consumption.

'UNDERHANDED' HIGH-TECH VISA HIKE. After telling House members that no controversial bills would be brought up, congressional leaders Oct. 3 hustled through a bill to increase visas for computer programmers and engineers -- one of the top legislative priorities of the high tech industry. After months of wrangling, the Senate voted 96-1 in favor of the bill the morning of Oct. 3. In the evening, the House passed the bill by a voice vote after most members had left for the evening. Despite his support of the bill, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said it was "pretty underhanded" to conduct a spur-of-the-moment voice vote after House members were told at 3:30 p.m. that there would be no further votes on important issues, allowing them to go home to watch the presidential debates. Then, at 5:30 p.m., lawmakers were summoned by e-mail to the House floor for a vote. About 40 of the 435 lawmakers were present. "It's a really sorry way to run a railroad," he said, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Critics, including labor unions and the nation's largest organization for engineers, say the visas allow companies to hire cheaper foreign labor instead of training US workers. The visa program also has been criticized for being rife with fraud. But in 2000, high-tech companies have donated more than $22 million to candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington.

BUSH AIR CLEANUP A BUST. Speaking for the Texas Air Crisis Campaign, a group of 44 public interest groups which have pooled their resources to "clear the air" in the state, Jim Marston of Environmental Defense in Austin said Oct. 2 that analysis of state environmental data shows that in its first year Gov. George W. Bush's highly touted voluntary emissions-reduction program can be credited with reducing toxic emissions by 3/10ths of 1%. See the report at (www.texascenter.org/aircrisis).

NO MERCY AT INS. Catholic relief volunteers have been thrown out of at least one federal lockup for what the Immigration and Naturalization Service determined was improper use of the Gospel. The National Catholic Reporter on Sept. 29, in a cover story on "Immigrant Nightmare," reporting on the intended and unintended consequences of the 1996 immigration "reform," notes that in canceling the Jesuit Refugee Service's Bible studies last Christmas at a New Jersey immigrant detention center, Andrea J. Quarantillo, director of the INS's Newark office, stated that the use of Matthew's Chapter 25, in which Jesus tells his followers, among other things, to welcome strangers and comfort those in prison, deals improperly with "detention issues." For promoting the "Works of Mercy," the Jesuits were replaced with local Episcopalians who apparently stick to more acceptable verses. Also canceled were English language classes started by the Jesuits.

MINORITY LENDING MAY BE PREDATORY. New data on home mortgage lending in 1999 shows growth in lending to minorities, but the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) warns that much of it may have come via sub-prime loans, which have higher interest rates and fees and more onerous terms. As reported in Business Ethics magazine's online report, the number of conventional home loans from 1998 to 1999 rose 22% for Latinos, 13% for African-Americans, and 2% for whites, but ACORN says that based on previous years' data, it is likely subprime loans accounted for a significant share of the recent growth. Rather than being cause for celebration, the new data may be cause for alarm. "Not all loans are equal," said Maude Hurd, ACORN's president. "We have seen that too many mortgage companies prey on black and Latino homebuyers, overcharging them and taking advantage of their desire to share in the American Dream." In the one-year period 1997 to 1998, for example, subprime loans represented 57% of the growth in conventional purchase loans made to African-Americans. In the three-year period 1995 to 1998, subprime loans made up 97% of the increase to African-Americans, 45% of the increase to Latinos, but just 16% of the increase to whites.

BLACK CAUCUS POWER STRUGGLE. Business-oriented Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) will challenge traditional liberal Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) for the chairmanship of the Congressional Black Caucus (]). Johnson, first vice chairwoman of the caucus, was considered likely to succeed Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) who appointed Thompson two years ago to lead a "new market initiative" to reach out to business lobbyists in the agricultural, gambling and technology industries. Capitol Hill sources told Whitt Flora at www.politicsonthenet.com that Thompson decided to run after business lobbyists encouraged him.

'AWFUL TRUTH' REACHES FLINT. After the Flint, Mich., cable company refused to carry The Awful Truth, produced by hometown boy Michael Moore, the Bravo network has agreed to let the local PBS station air the award-winning muckraking series, starting Oct. 8. "It's the only place in the country where The Awful Truth can be aired as God intended over the free and publicly-owned airwaves!," Moore said.

GUIDE ON SHAREHOLDER ACTIVISM. If you have ever wanted to use investments to confront companies about their practices, but didn't know how, a new guide shows the way. The new handbook from Friends of the Earth helps socially conscious investors in using shareholder activism tools. The handbook looks at characteristics of successful campaigns, examples of successful campaigns in the US and abroad, drafting shareholder resolutions, SEC rules on these resolutions, getting shareholders to vote for your resolutions, and presenting at annual meetings. Check out the new guide at (www.foe.org/international/shareholder/) or call FOE at 202-783-7400. Business Ethics online.

NEW WEBSITE FOR FARMERS, (www.CropChoice.com), is supported by several grassroots grower groups (Organic Farmers Marketing Association, National Family Farm Coalition, the American Corn Growers Association and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, as well as others) with the intention of giving farmers needed sources of information about genetically modified crops, alternatives, management options, and profitability.

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