Tuesday :: Mar 2, 2004

You Know We Got To Stick Together - Part 1


by pessimist

Some of the big issues facing Americans today are employment and the loss of earning power. Beginning with FDR's transformation of a Great Depression America into the Arsenal of Democracy, American workers have generally enjoyed a standard of living unsurpassed by any other group of workers in history. This can partly be attributed to the effective legalization of labor unions by the National Labor Relations Act.

Such an action, however, cast FDR as the traitor to his economic class for his concern about the plight of the common man over the loss of investment power of the wealthy. Over the years, especially through such acts as Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin, the power of the labor union has been eroded, culminating in Ronald Reagan's unfair labor practices leading to the dissolution of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) - the role model for management-labor relations ever since. One can ask the former United Mine Workers who used to work for Phelps-Dodge in Arizona (1983), as well as the former Caterpillar-employed United Auto Workers of Peoria, Illinois (1991) just how effective that model was in showing unions just how little power they have.

Equally effective was the heavy dose of propaganda concerning the public image of labor unions. Because of the act of workers banding together to press for redress of workplace grievances, unions were tagged by the conservatives as being Socialistic (if not Communistic!), demonstrating that demonization of workers by the Right in this country is nothing new. The Socialist image was to inspire thoughts of Josef Stalin's excesses against the (economic) ruling class of Russia, although these particular excesses were mostly completed, done by others, by the time he took power. The fact that Stalin's actions didn't differ in many significant ways from Hitler's, with the exception of Hitler allowing the economic elite of his country to thrive,is lost on most Americans.

The economic elite relies upon legal agreements to conduct their business affairs, generally utilizing formal contracts. When these agreements are forged between two corporations, you can bet that both sides will see to it that the agreement is followed to the letter. But when the contract is with a corporation and a labor organization, judging by the howling going on one could think that the Russian Revolution was underway against the Tsar and his class once more.

Is a contract less valid legally just because it involves workers? In this country, this is the only logical conclusion one can draw. If a labor organization runs afoul of the law, you will see the organization leaders doing the perp walk a whole lot quicker than you will get to see Kenny-boy doing it! (Assuming we ever do, that is.)

As individual workers do not have the resources available to a corporation, the only logical step to take is to do what business does all the time - form a larger unit to balance the power of one's commercial adversary. And if ever there was a need to act in such a manner, that time is now.


Solution is raises, benefits, unions

Once, we had a compact between employers, workers and government that benefited most American families and created a large, healthy middle class.

Since the recession began three years ago, we've had the greatest sustained job loss since the Great Depression. The 3 million and growing high-tech, manufacturing and financial services jobs we've lost were family-sustaining jobs, with decent wages, vacation time, health and retirement benefits and chances for advancement. They were good jobs, settling those who held them, and their families, solidly into America's middle class. Because employers can now get the work done abroad for much less money, without unions and government regulations, those jobs are probably gone for good.

Free marketers respond that as we lose these jobs, we are creating new ones. Most of those, however, lack the characteristics of those lost. In January, 60 percent of the 174,000 jobs created were in retail and food services. These jobs have dreary working conditions and low wages, so turnover is high. Such jobs do not create buying power or secure healthy families. On the contrary, they erode both. They are not signs of an economic recovery, but of an economy that is structurally rusting away.

When the recession began, America already had 30 million low-wage jobs. Workers in these jobs perform tasks essential to modern life -- as security guards, hospital orderlies, hotel maids, restaurant cleanup crews, nursing home care givers and teaching assistants. But they still don't earn enough to provide themselves and their families the basics. Instead of reaping the rewards of the American dream for all their hard work, they must put up with unsafe or humiliating working conditions. They get little retirement, health care, child care or other benefits. Their jobs pay below the poverty line of $18,100 for a family of four. A decade ago, almost two-thirds of workers got their health insurance from their employers. Today, fewer than half do.

What we need now to restore family-sustaining jobs, especially in these turbulent times, is a new compact with working Americans that ensures that if you work hard, you can provide the basics of a decent life for yourself and your family.

What would such a compact contain? To make work pay, we need to raise the minimum wage that, when adjusted for inflation, has stagnated since the 1970s and require employers who receive government monies to provide quality jobs. Like their counterparts in other industrialized countries, working Americans need health insurance and time to tend sick children or aging parents without losing pay -- or their jobs. Once again, we must guarantee the right of workers to freely organize and join unions.

If we put these pieces in place, we will start to create family-sustaining jobs. And the term "economic recovery" can once again have real meaning for American working men and women and those whom they support, at home and at the polls.

With these ideals in mind, a group of workers across the nation, mostly in California, chose to exercise their legal rights to address grievances in the workplace. But as the old adage says, no good deed goes unpunished.


Longest U.S. Grocery Strike Ends with Deal

The contract covering some 70,000 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union at three major supermarket chains -- Kroger Co., Albertsons Inc. and Safeway Inc. -- was approved by an 86 percent margin, a spokeswoman for the union said. The 20-week-long labor dispute centered largely on health care costs, with supermarket chains saying they could no longer afford to pay for the benefits without contributions from workers in the face of competition from non-union rivals like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Almost 900 stores were affected by the strike and lock-out, estimated to have cost the supermarkets more than $1 billion in lost sales.

Under the terms of the three-year agreement, current union members will not have to make any contributions toward their health care plans in the first two years and will only need to pay from $5 to $15 in the third year if health care contributions in reserves do not cover the costs, union spokeswoman Ellen Anreder said.

Now just what are the odds that these reserves won't cover the costs in the third year? Anyone for even money?

But this wasn't the worst part of this "agreement":

The contract creates a second, lower tier of supermarket employees who will receive less pay and inferior benefits. New supermarket hires will have to pay about $9 a week for a basic health care plan and will make less than the average wages of $12 to $14 an hour earned by their veteran counterparts. In addition, the supermarkets will contribute 35 percent toward employee pensions for new hires versus 65 percent for veteran employees. The supermarkets had previously contributed 100 percent to employee pension plans but had proposed no future pension accruals when some 60,000 grocery workers went on strike or were locked out of their jobs on Oct. 11.

This sort of thing happened to my local union, of which I have been a member in good standing for over 20 years. We have a similar two-tier system, and all acceptance of this by a local does is create a permanent division between newer and older members, a division which can and will be exploited by their employer for the benefit of the employer. As unions do not have near the economic and political clout that is enjoyed by employers, this becomes a ticking time bomb, set to explode as soon as the employer sees a benefit. When it comes to labor, management will settle for nothing less than total domination of labor.

This disparity of economic and political power has led to the following situation:


Labor Unions, Strikes Losing Effectiveness

Although representatives of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the grocery chains aren't talking, a tentative deal has been reached. Both sides claim victory. The supermarkets say they have cut labor costs and health care spending. The union says it has ensured job security and "affordable health care" for its members. Even if the unions come out with a better deal than expected, they probably shouldn't celebrate too much, say analysts.

Don't Celebrate Yet

The ability of firms to outlast workers applies to the California grocery strike. The supermarkets, with a combined $35 billion in annual revenue, wielded a war chest that easily surpassed that of the unions. The grocery chains - Kroger Co., which owns Ralphs; Safeway Inc., which owns Vons and Pavilions; and Albertsons Inc. - have lost about $2.1 billion in sales. Their stocks all dropped Friday on news of the deal. Morningstar analyst Mark Hugh-Sam told Reuters some investors might be worried that "the deal was not as favorable as they thought the grocers would get."

Although full details of the deal aren't known, "the food retailers are going to obtain two significant concessions from the union," said Edouard Aubin, a food retail analyst with Deutsche Bank Securities. "No. 1, employees are going to have to contribute to their health care coverage," he said. No. 2 is that the contract will create a two-tier system for workers. New hires will start at lower wages and it will take them longer to reach seniority. Aubin says the supermarkets will make a higher contribution to their employees' health care than they had initially offered in October. "The strike was very painful for both sides. That's why both sides wanted to end it," Aubin said.

While it's still too early to crown a winner in this contest, labor analysts say that strikes overall are losing their effectiveness as a tool for workers seeking redress. "There's no question that unions have pretty much abandoned the strike weapon as a tool," said James Bennett, editor of the Journal of Labor Research at George Mason University. "If you look at the historical data, the number of strikes in the United States has gone down dramatically."

Bennett says it's hard to measure who wins in the majority of strikes: management or labor. It depends on circumstances and whether you look at short- or long-term results. "For example, a union can strike, get a terrific contract. And then what happens six months later? They close the plant and move it to South Carolina. What good is it to have the best contract in the industry in your pocket if you don't have a job?" Bennett said.

John Heywood, director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee human resources and labor relations program, agrees. Not only can employers hire replacement workers, Heywood says, but workers must take into account foreign competition. Companies can simply move jobs out of the U.S. Heywood said a recent Wisconsin strike at a Tyson Foods plant was a failure. "When you have producers who have many, many plants, it's hard for one of those plants to successfully strike," he said. In other words, Tyson had the finances to outlast its workers. Workers wanted wages and benefits equal with what Tyson offered elsewhere. But the company got major concessions from the union in the areas of wages, pension, vacation time, sick leave and health care.

Maybe unions are catching on. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the number of work stoppages, the majority of which are strikes, has plummeted over the past 30 years to 19 in 2002. "The number of workers idled, the number of days of idleness, and the percent of estimated working time lost because of strikes and lockouts were at historic lows in 2002," the Bureau reported in March 2003. Numbers aren't out yet for 2003 and 2004, but the grocery strike, which involved some 60,000 workers, will cause a spike in the number of workers idled in those years.

For Bennett, the sharp decline in strikes over the decades is enough proof that labor isn't winning. "If strikes were effective for unions, wouldn't there be a lot of them?" Bennett asked. The reason strikes have become less effective is that unions have become less effective, says Leo Troy, an economist at Rutgers University. "They've lost a lot of membership over the years," Troy said. When the union resorts to a strike, "it has a less-muscular result. They're just a lot weaker," he said. Although some workers stayed the course, reports say hundreds of others, starved for cash and low in morale, have retired from the union. There's also less sympathy for strikers than in the past. This is partly because union workers make up only 9%-10% of the private sector work force.

Beginning in 1968, labor union members abandoned the Democratic Party, in part over civil rights (later successfully exploited for more votes by the GOP) and in part over fears of urban unrest destroying life as they knew it. The day of the labor organization being a political powerhouse was drawing to its close, betrayed by its own members. Labor has been in retreat ever since, losing wages, benefits, legal rights, effective political influence, and now jobs.


Loss of good jobs hits Montanans hard

Despite the recent rosy news about the national economy, the fact is too many of us have been laid off or have seen friends and family bring home a pink slip because plants and mines are closing or moving overseas. And those of us who do get new jobs find that they are rarely as good as the ones we lost.

Over the past three years, the Bush years, America has lost 2.6 million middle class-supporting manufacturing jobs. These jobs are in steel, garments, electric motor manufacturing, car parts and information technology - the old and the new. These numbers aren't temporary cutbacks or seasonal layoffs. These jobs are lost and are not coming back. President Bush has the worst jobs record of any president since Hoover in the Great Depression.

Bush's trade and economic policy is creating jobs, but it's creating them in Shanghai, not in Forsyth or Miles City, Colstrip, or Glendive. Bush's trade agreements encourage U.S. companies to move overseas in search of cheaper labor. He says he will demand an even playing field but does nothing as China runs up a $120 billion trade surplus with us while playing by its own set of rules. Bush's tax policy encourages American manufacturers to move abroad to take advantage of lucrative tax breaks. These policies reward companies that incorporate overseas to avoid paying their fair share of U.S. taxes.

America's job loss, manufacturing decline and flood of jobs moving overseas threaten our economic future and national security. Manufacturing is the engine that drives American vitality and productivity. Fewer manufacturing jobs mean less revenue for our schools, local business and the community. The whole country has seen persistent layoffs, job losses and the resulting economic fallout for workers and our communities.

Time for change

On top of the unprecedented job loss and unfair trade policies, Bush wants to strip overtime pay from as many as eight million workers. And the administration has not supported any increase in the minimum wage, now worth 24 percent less than in 1979. The Bush White House has refused to put controls on healthcare costs, much less to offer health insurance to the growing number of working families who can't afford it.

America can expect more of the same or worse, unless we demand change. Our nation should invest here at home, in our communities. The administration should fix our deteriorating schools, repair roads and bridges and upgrade the electric system as well as support clean coal technology. If Bush invested in our schools, roads, health care, infrastructure and clean coal technology - instead of siphoning off much needed tax revenue and putting it in the pockets of the wealthy through millionaire tax cuts - we would see some real turnaround in our country's economy.

It's time to put America back to work in good, middle class jobs. It's time to rebuild at home a better future for ourselves and our families.

Such stirring words! But so meaningless if you are one of those who has yet to find ANY job to replace the one you just lost. And with news like the following, your burden isn't made any lighter.


Mass layoffs set record in January

There were more mass layoffs in January in the United States than in any previous January for the nine-years that such records have been kept. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' said both the number of mass layoff actions nationally and the number of unemployment compensation claims filed as a result were higher last month than in the same month a year earlier, the Kansas City Star reported Thursday. There were 2,428 mass layoff actions in January, affecting 239,454 workers. In January of 2003, there were 2,315 actions, affecting 225,430 workers.

The extent of the layoffs surprised market analysts who expected them to increase for seasonal reasons, but not as much as occurred. The higher counts ran counter to a general downward trend over the past year for both the number of mass layoff actions -- layoffs of 50 workers or more at a single work site -- and the number of initial jobless claims resulting from the actions. The national unemployment rate stood at 5.6 percent in January, down from 6.3 percent last June.


Jobless claims edge up

New jobless claims rose in the United States last week, the government said Thursday, coming in slightly higher than Wall Street forecasts. The Labor Department said 350,000 people filed new claims for state unemployment benefits in the week ended Feb. 21, compared with 344,000 the prior week. Economists, on average, expected 345,000 new claims, according to Briefing.com. The four-week moving average of new claims, which irons out the volatility of the weekly data, rose to 354,750 from 352,000 the prior week.

Continued claims, the number of people out of work for a week or more, slipped to 3.1 million for the week ended Feb. 14, the latest data available, from a revised 3.16 million the prior week. Though it usually takes a while for unemployment to fall once the economy's started growing again -- since employers are hesitant to start hiring until they believe the recovery is for real -- the United States has enjoyed nine straight quarters of growth, including the strongest performance in 20 years in the third quarter of 2003, without significant job creation. In fact, since March 2001, when the 2001 recession began, more than 2.3 million payroll jobs have been lost, according to the Labor Department, making this recession/recovery period the most "jobless" since World War II. Some economists worry that structural changes in the job market, including technological advances and a growing appetite for cheap offshore labor, will keep hiring muted in 2004.

Ever hear Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? At the rate things are going, you should.


760,000 JOBLESS DENIED AID — AND COUNTING

From late December, when the federal program designed to help the long-term unemployed began phasing out, through the end of February, an estimated 760,000 jobless workers will have exhausted their regular unemployment benefits without receiving additional aid, according to new projections by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The 760,000 figure is based on previously released data for December, just-released data for January, and a Center estimate for February. New Labor Department data for January show that about 350,000 individuals exhausted their regular unemployment benefits last month and received no further unemployment assistance. In no other month on record, with data available back to 1971, have there been so many “exhaustees." (The attached table provides state-by-state data on the number of exhaustees in January.)

[The table was too large for this already long article, so I refer you to the bottom of the linked page - it's scary! - ed]

From December 20 through the end of February, an estimated 786,000 individuals will exhaust their regular unemployment benefits. About 26,000 of them will qualify for additional unemployment aid through the permanent, but quite limited, federal/state "extended benefits" unemployment program. The remaining 760,000 individuals will not qualify for additional aid.

Record Number of Exhaustees in January

In the just-released Labor Department data for January 2004, some 365,000 individuals exhausted their regular unemployment benefits. An estimated 14,000 of these individuals then qualified for additional aid under the “extended benefits" program. (Four states qualified for extended benefits at the beginning of the month. Only Alaska qualified by the end of the month.)

These results are consistent with a prediction made in a recent Center report, Unmet Need Hits Record Level for the Unemployed. The report forecast that exhaustions in January would set a monthly record. Actual exhaustions in January, though slightly (six percent) lower than the report projected, still were larger than in any other month on record. The January data also support the report’s prediction that the first half of 2004 will see record numbers of exhaustions. The report estimated that nearly two million unemployed workers will exhaust their regular benefits from January to June 2004 and go without further aid. If this estimate is lowered by six percent (reflecting the fact that the actual level for January was six percent below the January prediction used in the estimate), the finding still holds; there will still be a record number of exhaustees in the first half of 2004.

Would It Be Better Just to Wait for Jobs to Come Back?

Congressional resistance to resuming the program has largely been based on the argument that the program is no longer needed because the labor market is improving. A related argument is that providing federal benefits prolongs unemployment spells by reducing unemployed workers’ incentive to find a new job.

There are 2.4 million fewer jobs in the economy than when the recession began. Even at double the pace of job growth in January, when 112,000 jobs were created, it would take until the end of the year for this jobs deficit to be closed. Further, if the existence of federal unemployment benefits had been the main reason the unemployed were not finding jobs, the number of workers exhausting their regular unemployment benefits should not have been exceptionally large in January, since the federal program was no longer open to these workers. In fact, exhaustions hit a record high level in January.

Come September, the Republican Party Coronation of George Warmonger Bush will be held in New York City over the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I wonder what they would think if they were greeted by a large number of the jobless following?


Nearly Half of Black Men Found Jobless

The unemployment rate in New York City rose sharply during the recent recession. The increase was worse for men than for women, and especially bad for black men. But a new study examining trends in joblessness in the city since 2000 suggests that by 2003, nearly one of every two black men between 16 and 64 was not working.

The study, by the Community Service Society, a nonprofit group that serves the poor, is based on data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and focuses on the so-called employment-population ratio - the fraction of the working-age population with a paid job - in addition to the more familiar unemployment rate, the percentage of the labor force actively looking for work.

Mark Levitan, the report's author, found that just 51.8 percent of black men ages 16 to 64 held jobs in New York City in 2003. The rate for white men was 75.7 percent; for Hispanic men, 65.7; and for black women, 57.1. The employment-population ratio for black men was the lowest for the period Mr. Levitan has studied, which goes back to 1979.

Researchers who have studied joblessness said Mr. Levitan's findings were consistent with trends among disadvantaged men, both black and white, in other Northern and Midwestern cities where manufacturing jobs have disappeared in recent decades. Some said factors that might have made the problem worse since 2000 could include welfare reform, high rates of incarceration producing gaps in job histories, and competition with immigrants for low-skill jobs.

Labor force participation - job-holding and job-seeking - among disadvantaged men had been declining nationwide and that New York City had long had "a lower work level" than elsewhere. Others said a similar racial gap in male employment had been seen in Midwestern and Central states.

"You're really talking about a long-term problem among low-skilled, disadvantaged men," said Lawrence M. Mead, a professor of political science at New York University who specializes in social policy and welfare reform. "Blacks are disproportionately disadvantaged. You're seeing this tendency to drop out. It's very serious and nobody has an answer."

Well, if Lee "Willie Horton" Atwater were still alive, he just might suggest THIS as a solution to the problem.


Outsourcing? Try 'Insourcing'

Chris Harry is a model employee for the U.S. call-center industry. The 25 year-old arrives promptly at his cubicle, speaks courteously on the phone and is never late or absent. He plans to stick with his job for three years, a boon in an industry plagued by high turnover. And he gladly works for money many Americans would scoff at -- $130 or so a month. After all, he could be back swabbing cell-block floors for a third of that. "I can't complain about fair," said Harry, who was sentenced to 10 years and eight months for robbery. "I did a crime and I'm in prison. At least I'm not wearing a ball and chain."

Prison inmates like Harry are the reason Perry Johnson Inc., a Southfield, Michigan consulting company, had intended to move to India, but chose to remain in the United States and open inside the Snake River Correctional Institution, a sprawling razor wire and cinder block Oregon state penitentiary a few miles west of the Idaho line.

The center's opening followed a year-long effort by the Oregon Department of Corrections to recruit businesses that would otherwise move offshore, and echoes a national trend among state and federal prisons to recruit such companies. "This is a niche where the prison industry could really help the U.S. economy," said Robert Killgore, director of Inside Oregon Enterprises, the quasi-state agency that recruits for-profit business to prisons. "I'm really excited about this," he said. "We keep the benefits here in the United States with companies where it's fruitless to compete on the outside."

Prison officials have long praised work programs for lowering recidivism and teaching inmates skills and self-respect, yet have been criticized by unions for taking jobs from the private sector. Critics assail the idea of retaining American jobs in prisons as a flagrant violation of minimum wage laws and an affront to free workers. "Obviously, it doesn't do anything for the labor market here," said University of Oregon political science professor Gordon Lafer, author of a study on prison labor. "It's like bringing little islands of the Third World right here to the heartland of America," he said. "You get the same total control of the work force, the same low wages, and it does nothing for the inmates." Also, convicts don't benefit much from training for jobs that no longer exist in America because they have all gone overseas or into prisons, he said.

Those concerns are moot if a company planned to leave the country anyway, Killgore said. Ten states, including Oregon, employ inmates in for-profit call centers. Oregon and many others also make garments and furniture -- industries that have largely moved offshore, other than in prisons.

National prison labor trade groups support the idea

Perry Johnson Inc. opened its call center in an Oregon prison for half the price of relocating to India, and achieved many of the same benefits, according to Mike Reagan, director of Inside Oregon Enterprises at Snake River. The convicts pitch Perry Johnson's quality control consulting service to executives at American businesses, sometimes even company presidents. "I've been here three months," Harry said as he kicked back in his cubicle and bantered about the weather with a customer in Houston. "Nobody's ever suspected they're talking to a convict." He said he is thankful for the skills he has learned in prison, and intends to attend college when he is released.

Inmates make good telemarketers, prison officials said. "They see an opportunity to talk to people and learn how to communicate," said Nick Armenakis, a manager for Inside Oregon Enterprises. "They are told that to keep these jobs, they have to be very patient and very contrite, and follow protocol."

Prison officials randomly monitor inmates' phone conversations and all calls are digitally recorded to discourage personal calls or illegal activity. The prisoners, paid between 12 cents and $5.69 an hour, according to Bureau of Prisons statistics, work 40-hour weeks in rows of nondescript cubicles. Inmates at Snake River must have three to five years remaining on their sentences to qualify for the call-center job. Outside, the typical turnover is nine months.

So where are all of these inmate telemarketers going to come from if "insourcing" unemployed black men doesn't provide enough manpower for corporate interests? We could think about this:

Will illness become a crime?

There's been a lot of whining about health care recently: the shocking cost of insurance, the mounting reluctance of employers to share that cost, the challenge--should you be so lucky as to have insurance--of finding a doctor your insurance company will deign to reimburse, and so forth. But let's look at the glass half full for a change. Despite the growing misfit between health care costs and personal incomes, it is not yet illegal to be sick.

Not quite yet, anyway, though the trend is clear: Hospitals are increasingly resorting to brass knuckle tactics to collect overdue bills from indigent patients. Take the case of Martin Bushman, an intermittently insured mechanic with diabetes who, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, had run up a $579 debt to Carle Hospital in Champaign-Urbana. When he failed to appear for a court hearing on his debt rather than miss a day of work, he was arrested and hit with $2,500 bail.

Arrests for missed court dates, which the hospitals whimsically refer to as "body attachments," are on the rise throughout the country. Again, on the half full side, we should be thankful that the bodies attached by hospitals cannot yet be used as sources of organs for transplants.

Mindful of their status as nonprofit charitable institutions, hospitals used to be relatively congenial creditors. No longer, and it's not just the dodgier, second-rate hospitals that are relying on the police as collection agents. Yale-New Haven Hospital, for example, has obtained sixty-five arrest warrants for delinquent debtors in the last three years.

Of course, if you work for Yale-New Haven, it's not your body that gets "attached." Tawana Marks, a registrar at the hospital, who had the misfortune to also be admitted as a patient. Unsurprisingly, her hospital-supplied health insurance failed to cover her hospital-incurred bill, so Marks now has her paycheck garnished by her own employer--a condition of debt servitude reminiscent of early twentieth century company towns.

To compound the sufferings of the sick and sub-affluent, hospitals now routinely charge uninsured people several times more than the insured.

The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reports that one local hospital charged an uninsured patient $29,000 for an appendectomy that would have cost an insured patient $6,783. The explanation for such shameless gouging of the poor? Big insurance companies and HMOs are able to negotiate "discounts" for their members, leaving the uninsured to pay whatever fanciful amounts the hospital cares to charge, such as, in one reported case, $50 for the use of a hospital gown.

Back in 1961, psychiatrist Thomas Szasz noted the "medicalization" of behavior formerly classified as crime or sin, such as drug addiction or what was defined as sexual deviance. Rather than seeing this as a benign and potentially merciful trend, Szasz complained about the growing concentration of power in the hands of a "therapeutic state." How quaint his concern sounds today, when instead of the medicalization of crime, we are faced with the criminalization of illness. Sociologists have long seen a connection between sickness and criminality, classifying both as forms of deviance. Certainly, the relevant vocabularies have been converging: Note the similarity between the phrases "pre-existing condition" and "prior conviction," as well as the use of the terms "record" and "case."

Almost everyone, no matter how initially healthy and prosperous, is now in danger of falling into the clutches of the medical/penitentiary system. It could start with a condition--say, high blood pressure or diabetes--serious enough to be entered into your medical record. Next you lose your job, and with it your health insurance--or, the insurance company simply decides it no longer wants your business. You go to get new insurance, but no one wants you because you now have a "pre-existing condition." So when that condition flairs up or is joined by a new one, you enter the hospital as a "self-pay" patient, incur bills four times higher than an insured patient would, fall behind in paying them, and, given the hospitals' predatory collection tactics, wind up in jail.

A doctor once told a patient that, although he had detected a new and potentially life-threatening condition, he would refrain from prescribing anything to correct it, lest the medical record be marred by yet another pre-existing condition. The day will come when we look back on such small acts of kindness with nostalgia.

Even now, some bright young MBA at Aetna or Prudential is no doubt coming to the conclusion that a great deal of money and valuable medical resources could be saved through the simple expedient of arresting people at the first sign of illness. Skip the intermediate stages of diagnostic testing, hospitalization, and attempted debt collection, and proceed directly to incarceration. The end result will be the same, unless you succeed in concealing that cough or unsightly swelling from the cop on his or her beat. In time our society might be conditioned to conflate physical illness with moral failure. Should a rash or sore throat arrive, stand ready to serve time.

But for those of you who still imagine that illness and pain should elicit kindly responses from one's fellow humans, I have one last half full observation: Our prisons do offer health care--grossly inadequate care to be sure--but at least it's free, even for child molesters, ax murderers, and those miscreants who have the gall to be both sick and uninsured.

Unless companies like Perry Johnson Inc. don't or won't offer it!!!

So what of those vaunted Solons sent by We, the People to represent us in the deliberations of the solutions to our problems which are besetting us at every turn. Do they feel our pain? SEE PART II

pessimist :: 3:54 AM :: Comments (1) :: Digg It!