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Kristen Daum, Published November 05 2009

Area labor unions want ‘robust’ public option

Area labor union leaders in North Dakota and Minnesota called on Congress on Wednesday to pass health care reform that includes a “robust” public option and won’t tax the health care benefits of workers.

Leaders from eight unions shared their experiences in dealing with skyrocketing health care costs and their opinions on health care reform legislation during a roundtable hosted by the Northern Plains United Labor Council.

“We expect our elected officials to support a robust public insurance option that competes with for-profit insurers to lower premiums for everybody,” said Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Council 5 in Minnesota.

Staff members for North Dakota and Minnesota’s congressional delegations were present to refer the union leaders’ comments back to Washington.

Representatives from the unions, such as Machinist Lodge 2525, Education Minnesota and United Steel Workers Local 560, said they’ve seen how out of control health care costs have become, with some noticing a fourfold increase in costs during the past 10 years.

Because of those increases, unions and businesses have faced difficulty adequately compensating their members when contract negotiations come around.

“We’re seeing a trade-off,” said Paul Ptacek, area business representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 49. “You are going to pay to keep what you have, or you are going to see a reduction in benefits.”

The House health care reform bill that could be voted on as early as this week does not include a tax on health care benefits; the Senate version does, according to AFSCME.

Seide said it would be “completely unfair” to tax health care benefits.

“The wealthiest nation in the world should be able to provide high-quality, affordable health care for all, without slamming working families who are already struggling to survive,” Seide said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541