Senate Approves Trade Legislation that Includes Health Benefits for Trade-Displaced U.S. Workers
The Senate yesterday voted 66-30 to approve a trade bill containing a provision that would help American workers displaced by international trade pay for health insurance, the Washington Post reports. The bill, which would give President Bush the authority to present trade agreements to Congress for straight up-or-down votes without amendments, would provide as many as 100,000 uninsured trade-displaced workers with advanceable tax credits to cover up to 70% of the cost of health insurance premiums (Dewar, Washington Post, 5/24). The workers could use the tax credits to purchase health insurance through COBRA -- the 1986 Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which allows unemployed workers to retain employer-sponsored health coverage by paying 102% of the premiums -- or through group health insurance pools established by states (California Healthline, 5/10). About 65,000 secondary workers -- those who lose their jobs because they provide services for American industries affected by international trade -- would also be eligible for the health benefits (Espo, AP/San Jose Mercury News, 5/23). The health insurance tax credits, along with other benefits for trade-displaced workers, would cost as much as $12 billion over the next 10 years (Washington Post, 5/24). Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the main sponsor of the bill, said that the health benefit provision was "absolutely critical" to the bill's passage (Kirchhoff, Boston Globe, 5/24). (Boston Globe, 5/24). He added, "[W]e insisted that the benefits of trade go to workers and not just to companies" (Kahn, New York Times, 5/24). But Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who sponsored a defeated amendment to extend health benefits to retired steel workers, said she could not vote for the trade bill because "it seeks trade that is more free than fair" (Hosler, Baltimore Sun, 5/24).
The final details of the bill now must be worked out with leaders in the House, which last year "narrowly approved" a trade bill that did not include health benefits for trade-displaced workers, the Post reports (Washington Post, 5/24). The Senate bill is expected to "meet at least some opposition" from House Ways and Means Committee Chair Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who has "strong opinions" about health benefits for displaced workers and is expected to advocate a "more market-based approach" to providing health coverage (King/Murray, Wall Street Journal, 5/24). However, supporters of the Senate bill said that keeping the health benefits provision would give Bush "several critical votes" from House Democrats who last year voted against the bill (Vieth, Los Angeles Times, 5/24). Some House Democrats have "begun a drive" to retain the Senate bill's health provision in the final version of the legislation (New York Times, 5/24). Congressional leaders said they hope to reach a compromise on the bill before the July 4 recess (Wall Street Journal, 5/24).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.