Let's go back, just for a minute, to a time before screaming teabaggers, before Republicans decided to kill health insurance reform as a means to politically destroy this country's first African-American president.
Try and remember what it was like before discussion of health insurance reform raised voices, a time when instead it raised concern. Recollect Aug. 7, 2007, during the Democratic primaries, when then-60-year-old retired and disabled steelworker Steve Skvara stood at a microphone during a political debate and told his story with tears in his eyes and a catch in his throat.
He'd worked more than 30 years at LTV Steel in East Chicago, Ind., and assumed like many who earned pensions and retiree health coverage that those benefits were guaranteed. But then LTV went bankrupt and ditched its obligations. Skvara told the candidates:
"Every day of my life, I sit at the kitchen table across from the woman who devoted 36 years of her life to my family and I can't afford her health care. What's wrong with America, and what will you do to change it?"
Skvara asked that question two years ago when 45 million Americans lacked health insurance. Now 46.3 million are without it.
And yet, teabaggers and Republicans are bent on preventing reform. They want to ensure only one thing - that another million Americans suffer no health coverage two years from now.
President Obama invoked Skvara's name at the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh on Sept. 15 in a speech about the middle class.
Mostly Skvara is a symbol of health insurance failure. But to Obama, he's an emblem of something much bigger. It is a struggle of economic philosophies. For the past 20 years, the winning view has been that government should give breaks to big corporations and rich individuals. Obama told the AFL-CIO he believes in something different -- an economy built on a vibrant and wide middle class.
Here's what he said:
"For over half a century, the success of America has been built on the success of our middle class. It was the creation of the middle class that lifted this nation up in the wake of a great depression. It was the expansion of the middle class that opened the doors of opportunity to millions more. It was a strong middle class that powered American industries, propelled America's economy, and made the 20th Century the first American Century.
And the fundamental test of our time is whether we will heed this lesson; whether we will let America become a nation of the very rich and the very poor, of the haves and the have nots; or whether we will remain true to the promise of this country and build a future where the success of all of us is build on the success of each of us."
Because of the extraordinary cost of health care in this country, insurance is a middle class issue. Health insurance can make or break a family - place it firmly in the middle class if an employer provides a good plan or bankrupt it if a family loses coverage during a serious illness.
Obama said as much to the AFL-CIO: "We'll grow our middle class by finally providing quality, affordable health insurance in this country."
Just this week, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a report showing premiums for family coverage rose 130 percent over the past decade. They now average $13,375, which is about the same as the entire annual take-home pay of a minimum wage worker.
Coverage is not affordable. The price of it is pushing families down the economic ladder. Look what it did to Skvara. He had been a middle class steelworker and remained in the middle class after retirement. But he moved toward poverty after the LTV bankruptcy cost his wife her health insurance coverage. Loss of health insurance and the ensuing medical bills robs families of their life savings, their homes, everything until they're bankrupt.
Skvara asked the candidates what was wrong with America and what would they do to fix it. Obama's plan for fixing health insurance would forbid dropping or denying coverage because a person is sick or has a pre-existing condition.
He wants the public option to provide competition so that rates are affordable. That public option would cover Skvara's wife - at a reasonable cost. So he could remain in the middle class and not find himself asking heartbreaking questions at public meetings.
The teabaggers are apoplectic because this isn't just about health care. This is about the values of a government.
The Obama administration fails to fawn over the affluent.
Instead, Obama talked of downtrodden workers in the former Jones & Laughlin Steel mill in Aliquippa. Bosses there fired a dozen workers shortly after the National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935. The workers, mostly union organizers, challenged the dismissals all the way the U.S. Supreme Court, securing a landmark win that not only got them their jobs back, but also affirmed the constitutionality of the labor law that led to the burgeoning of union organizing, and the growth of America's large, stable middle class.
To win that case, Obama told the AFL-CIO convention, workers of different ethnicities and faiths had to work together and stick together. That will be necessary to win this struggle to reform health insurance as well. But that reform is only the first part of Obama's plan for the middle class:
"We will make possible the dreams of middle class families and make real the promise of the United States of America."
That's worth fighting for.
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