Unions, Seniors Groups Urge Congress Not To Cut Medicare To Fund Trade Assistance

An already difficult road for the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the House of Representatives got bumpier on Monday, as controversial Medicare cuts were brought into the mix.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, listens to ranking member Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) Ryan plans to offer a bill to give the president "fast-track" authority over trade deals separately from a measure that would fund an extension of Trade Adjustment Assistance.

Labor unions and senior citizens' groups are launching efforts to lobby House members against a bill that includes $700 million in proposed cuts to Medicare reimbursements for doctors and hospitals. The cuts would be used to fund a $2.5 billion extension of Trade Adjustment Assistance funding, which aids workers who lose their jobs as a result of trade deals. The TAA extension accompanies legislation known as Trade Promotion Authority, which gives President Barack Obama the ability to "fast-track" trade deals, including TPP, a controversial trade agreement between the United States and 11 Pacific Rim nations.

The Huffington Post has obtained exclusive access to two letters, both sent to House members on Monday, one from labor unions and one from a number of seniors groups. Both letters condemn the use of Medicare cuts to fund TAA, and urge representatives to vote against the extension if it is not funded independently. The opposition of labor unions and other liberal interest groups, who normally support TAA, speaks to just how much more controversial the trade legislation -- which already faces the opposition of House members in both parties -- has become thanks to the proposed Medicare cuts.

The first letter is from labor unions including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Teachers, the Communications Workers of America, the Service Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The groups, which together represent 11 million workers, say in the letter that they reject any TAA funding that comes at the expense of Medicare.

“There are other ways to fund TAA that will protect workers without undermining Medicare,” the letter states, calling the TAA bill a "lose-lose choice."

The letter also cites the limited applicability and the inadequacy of the TAA benefits in the bill. The unions, many of which represent public sector workers, note that these workers would not be eligible for the TAA funding in the legislation, even though many public sector jobs are vulnerable to offshoring. (The letter cites a 2007 Congressional Research Service study that found that more than 12 percent of public sector jobs are “offshorable or highly offshorable.”) In addition, the groups critique the bill's Health Coverage Tax Credit as insufficient to provide affordable healthcare for workers who lose their jobs as a result of TPP.

The second letter is from a number of groups that advocate for the protection of Medicare benefits, including the Alliance for Retired Americans, which represents union retirees, the Medicare Rights Center, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, Social Security Works and Wider Opportunities for Women. The letter attacks the $700 million in Medicare cuts as detrimental to "the integrity of the program," and suggests that the cuts would harm the quality of care provided to Medicare beneficiaries.

“Medicare should not be used as a slush fund every time Congress is looking for a pay for,” the letter states, noting that the Academy of Family Physicians has called the cuts “damaging to the delivery of health care.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is putting the fast-track authority bill, which the Senate passed in late May, up for a vote without the TAA funding. The House will decide about cutting Medicare to pay for the TAA extension in a separate bill. Politico reported that the decision to offer a separate bill was a response to bipartisan dissatisfaction in the House with the TAA funding.

House leaders in both parties have suggested that the fast-track bill could come to the floor later this week, although a vote has still not been scheduled. The TAA bill would be voted on shortly thereafter.

The letters criticizing TAA could worsen a bitter public feud between Obama and his progressive base over the TPP and fast-track authority. While Obama has called TPP the "most progressive trade deal” in U.S. history, many progressive politicians and activists believe the agreement will widen income inequality and jeopardize protections for workers, consumers and the environment.

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