Union pushes health care

The labor union that recently fought a major local hospital operator over nurse-to-patient ratios and retirement benefits has launched an advocacy group designed to make health care the No. 1 issue in the 2008 presidential campaign.

The Service Employees International Union's Nevada for Health Care wants all candidates for the nation's highest office to offer reform plans that would address holes in insurance coverage and benefits.

"With the cost of health care skyrocketing, this is an issue that hits home with so many people," said Samantha Galing Gaddy, campaign director of Nevada for Health Care. "We don't believe there's a one-size-fits-all idea out there, but we are trying to use our voice to move policy makers toward change."

Nevada for Health Care has signed up 5,000 members since its organization in April, seeking out prospects at political gatherings and even at screenings of "Sicko," the new Michael Moore movie that takes on America's health-care establishment. The union wants 15,000 Nevada for Health Care members by January, when primary caucuses sweep the state. The idea is to marshal an army of volunteers who will attend every campaign event in the Silver State and "educate" candidates about the health care needs of Nevadans, Gaddy said.

About 450,000 Nevadans, or 18 percent of the state's 2.5 million residents, don't have health insurance, the group says. The number of uninsured nationwide is 44.8 million, or 15.3 percent of the population. Among demographic subgroups in Nevada, 36 percent of Hispanics are uninsured, and 21 percent of women are uninsured. Twelve percent of Asians and 16 percent of whites statewide lack health-care coverage.

So Nevada for Health Care and its parent association, the 500,000-member America for Health Care, is asking politicians to draw up plans accomplishing four elements: offering affordable, quality health insurance for all Americans; eliminating benefit gaps, such as the Medicare Part D "doughnut hole" that has insureds paying for some of their prescription drugs; finding and implementing cost efficiencies; and providing health plans similar to what federal employees receive in terms of plan and care choices.

Nevada for Health Care's call for fresh policies is receiving mixed reviews from members of the health-care community.

Local hospital operators wouldn't comment on the association's initiative, but Don Havins, chief executive officer of the Clark County Medical Society, commended the organization for emphasizing health-care reform in the presidential campaign.

But he questioned the practicality of the group's goals.

"It sounds wonderful," Havins said, "But how do you pay for it? It always comes down to money. How would you afford it?"

And Richard Ralston, executive director of California advocacy group Americans for Free Choice in Medicine, also welcomed the debate while taking issue with some of the group's ideas.

Ending some coverage gaps would be difficult, Ralston said. Medicare, for example, is facing a $60 trillion unfunded liability over the next several decades, he said, and shedding the requirement that seniors help fund some of their pharmacy benefits is "ludicrous" given the program's looming insolvency.

Plus, furnishing federal-employee-style insurance plans to more Americans would require a "huge new source of government revenue," he said.

"I don't think it's particularly realistic," Ralston said.

Realistic or not, Las Vegan Courtney Errington would like for presidential candidates to at least try to develop a reform platform.

Errington, a property manager and single mother, joined Nevada for Health Care in May after reading about the group in a union newsletter.

Errington's son is enrolled in Nevada Checkup, the state's health-care plan for low-income, uninsured kids. But until he was 8 years old, Errington couldn't afford a plan that would include him.

"I was working a job where I was making a living wage, and I still had to make choices about providing health care for my family," Errington said. "I don't think it should be that way. Everybody should have insurance, but it has to be a comprehensive, workable plan. It doesn't do any good for people to have coverage they can't use because they have a lot of co-pays and deductibles."

Neither Errington nor officials of Nevada for Health Care plan to promote any specific policies or candidates. The group's MySpace page counts among its "friends" Democratic candidates including Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama, as well as Republican contenders John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.

Rather than convincing the candidates to adopt a particular set of proposals, Nevada for Health Care executives hope to leverage Nevada's No. 2 position on the national primary schedule into a key position for Silver State residents in shaping the country's health-care conversation.

"Nevada is going to play a very big role in determining the presidential nominees," Gaddy said. "It's a natural fit for us to be here. We want to make health care the top issue, and we want to have a really big say in who's elected."