Outside the Baltimore offices of Bell Atlantic, where they had been on strike a year ago, labor union pickets were back yesterday to expand their demands for health coverage.
This time, the pickets were pressing for national health care for everybody -- not just the employed or the union member, not just the elderly or the young.
"We've got good health care, but a lot of Americans don't have any," said Bill Sheridan, president of Communications Workers of America Local 2390, as he handed out fliers on St. Paul Street. "This is a national responsibility that needs a national program."
The CWA, which called strikes at the Bell Atlantic Corp. and other regional telephone companies last summer when contract talks foundered on health care provisions, joined dozens of other unions in coordinated demonstrations at 50,000 U.S. worksites yesterday to push for reform of U.S. health care.
In front of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Robert Moore told how his union's members who work in health care facilities are being hurt by skyrocketing costs as much as those whom they serve.
"As health care workers, we see everyday people who cannot afford their health care," said Mr. Moore, president of District 1199E-DC, Service Employees union, which represents 5,500 hospital and nursing home employees in Maryland and Washington. "And we, too, are being priced out of the health care market
although we deliver health care."
"It's time that health insurance is taken off the bargaining table," he told the noontime crowd. "Every year, workers are forced to trade off improvements in wages and other benefits simply to secure basic health insurance," he said, while insurance premiums jump 25 percent and more.
The union demonstrators, who wore stickers proclaiming "Health Care for All," said they are not backing a particular health care plan or specific legislation. Like the series of national worker hearings on health care held by the AFL-CIO this month, they aimed to raise public awareness of the need for a comprehensive national program open to all Americans to replace the existing leaky patchwork of employer and government plans.
The United States spends twice as much on health care per person -- about $2,400 apiece -- as many other Western countries, such as Canada, West Germany and Sweden, where health coverage is a right instead of a labor bargaining issue, said Jerry Klimm, of CWA Local 2150. Yet the United States lags behind those countries, based on such measures as life expectancy and infant mortality, he argued.
"There's no control over prices of doctors or hospitals or medicine," said Mr. Klimm. Money is also wasted in duplicated equipment and services, while much of the health premiums paid by employers and their workers goes to insurance companies instead of for services.
Ellen Johnson, who took a union leaflet as she headed back to her downtown office , said she was in favor of a mandatory national program. Her son's recent tonsil surgery was covered by health insurance, but she still ended up paying several hundred dollars out of her pocket.
"What if I didn't have any health care coverage at all?" she said. "We definitely need to do something about it."