Rad Medicine

City council wades into the middle of the nation's health care crisis

But Paul Sonn, associate counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice and a backer of the bill, tells the Voice that since minimum wage laws haven't cost jobs, the health care mandate is unlikely to either. "We expect that they really need a base level of staffing to handle the operation of their sales," he says. Besides, says Frank Watson, an uninsured construction worker, "I'd rather have less money with health benefits for my family. It's going to cost you more without benefits."

Still, other critics take a different tack: Rather than going too far, perhaps the bill is too narrowly tailored. "It doesn't reach far enough to address some of the core issues of lack of health insurance in the business sector," says Marjorie Cadogan, Mayor Bloomberg's health care coordinator.

With the council considering the health care bill, Democrats running for City Hall could try to make medical coverage one of the bread-and-butter issues they use to attack the mayor. Congressman Anthony Weiner last week used a health care address to skewer Bloomberg for saying, back in January, "Medical care in this city is arguably one of the few services you can point to anyplace in the world where the poor get better services than the wealthy."

Strong support: The city may force construction firms to offer health coverage to workers, like these on the Bowery.
photo: Cary Conover
Strong support: The city may force construction firms to offer health coverage to workers, like these on the Bowery.

"If you follow that to its logical conclusion," Weiner quipped, "then Mayor Bloomberg and his friends would go to a public hospital if given the choice." But rather than forcing employers to get into the game, Weiner's health care plan would expand and improve existing government health plans.

The Bloomberg administration emphasizes government-sponsored programs and public-private partnerships like Family Health Plus and Health Pass. Doing anything more ambitious is tough, Cadogan says, because of the scope of the health care problem. "I think the city can always initiate a good idea," she says. "The ability to come to a viable solution, though, takes the partnership of players at the state and federal level to look at what's viable across the board."

After all, health insurance costs are crunching across the economy, rising more than 11 percent from 2003 to 2004, straining the balance sheets of everything from small businesses to General Motors to Medicare. The breadth of the crisis means, according to city Health and Hospitals Corporation president Alan Aviles, that "the city and the state alone cannot address this problem. It must be addressed at the national level."

But Washington doesn't seem to be in a rush to jump in. And until it does, the Cancer Society's Slocum points out, the Health Care Security Act is "a real incremental step. It represents lives saved—potentially many lives saved."

"I wish national lawmakers would solve it," says Simon Greer, co-director of New York Jobs With Justice, which is pushing the City Council bill. But for now, he adds, "It's clear to us in New York: We'll have to innovate here."

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