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Topics: Labor Unions

Sean Higgins: Unions having second thoughts about Obamacare

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Opinion,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Obamacare,Labor

Joseph Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, begged President Obama in an op-ed last week to save his union from the ravages of the Affordable Care Act. Or, as it is more commonly known, Obamacare.

The problem is the law will make his members' health care unaffordable. This is only the latest example of Big Labor's Obamacare angst. Union leaders are finding out that the law many of them championed undermines their own members' plans.

"[A]s currently interpreted, the ACA would block these plans from the law's benefits (such as the subsidy for lower-income individuals and families) while subjecting them to the law's penalties (like the $63 per insured person to subsidize Big Insurance)," Hansen wrote in the Hill.

Hansen's plea came one month after the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers called for the plan's full repeal. It warned the law would result in "unstoppable incentives" for managers to give their members fewer hours and poorer-quality insurance.

Others including the AFL-CIO are also aggressively lobbying members of the Obama administration to change the rules, citing similar problems.

The problem is many union members belong to multiemployer plans that are organized as nonprofits. Big Labor has long favored these plans, which tie workers to their union. But the ACA doesn't extend its benefits to these plans.

Hansen pleaded with Obama administration officials to extend a subsidy intended for low-income individuals and families to his members. He also revealed that those officials had turned him down -- which explained why he was going public.

The Obama administration's problem is that concessions had already been made to Big Labor on Obamacare when the law was being drafted, including a five-year delay in the law's 40 percent tax on so-called Cadillac health care plans.

These are high-premium insurance plans that many unions had won through collective bargaining and don't want to give up. The Obama administration had to delay the tax for everyone to avoid appearing to give a favored constituency a special break.

It was a tough concession for the Obama administration, which is struggling to keep the law's costs under control. Yet more concessions like the one Hansen wants aren't going to make that any easier.

The uncertainty created by Obamacare is causing other problems. Unions are finding it difficult to negotiate multiyear contracts with management when the regulations for health care are being constantly modified.

That's especially tough now given that the end of the Cadillac tax exemption is only a few years off, meaning costs could soar. That increases the likelihood that employers will dump workers into cheaper, less comprehensive plans.

Health coverage is a key benefit unions bargain for but Obamacare now threatens to take that off the table. For workers, that raises the question of why belong to a union in the first place. After years of declines, Big Labor cannot afford to lose more members.

Hansen started off his Hill op-ed by quoting Obama's speech to the AFL-CIO's 2009 convention in Pittsburgh. Regarding ACA, the president told them: "Nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change your coverage."

It was on the basis of assurances like that that most union leaders enthusiastically backed Obamacare. The AFL-CIO and numerous individual unions like UFCW joined Health Care for America Now, a liberal coalition that was instrumental in passing the law.

When Obamacare was signed into law in 2010, the UFCW issued a press release calling it "an achievement that will rank among the highest in our national experience."

It has to be tough for Hansen to realize now that he didn't read the fine print close enough and may not have the clout to get the administration to undo what it did.

Tough, but not as tough as it going to be on the UFCW members who may not be able to keep their coverage.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner