A SPEECH BY THE FIRST LADY TO THE UNITED AUTO WORKERS
AT THE SHERATON WASHINGTON HOTEL
WASHINGTON, D. C.
March 22, 1994
|Thank you. Boy. Can you all come back every week?
If that's what it takes, I like that. I am so pleased to be
here and so pleased to be with all of you. I want to start
by thanking President Bieber for his strong support of what
we are trying to do.
I actually like being mobbed by friendly faces.
I really like being with people who know that you can have
some fun while you're trying to fight for doing what's right.
It really makes me happy to be here.
That's what the UAW has done for so many years in
the fight for social justice and change in this country. You
have been there for workers who struggled for fair wages and
pensions and holidays and other benefits and, in the middle
of this century, you were there to ensure equal rights for
all Americans, and that was a tough battle as well.
Now, at the end of this century, you are here
again. You are here in so many ways. I want to talk to you
about your support for health care but I also want to
compliment every one of you and to compliment your leadership
in this union because you have been fighting, over the last
years, to preserve and strengthen the biggest and most
indispensable industries in our country and you have shown it
can be done.
You know, just last week the President was in
Michigan for the G-7 job summit, and he visited Detroit
Diesel with Owen Bieber, and I think some of you who are here
tonight. It was a great occasion for him. I talked to him
on the phone that night and he just couldn't stop talking
about what he had seen and how excited he was because he saw,
firsthand, the kind of innovative thinking and partnership
that was going on in that plant and many others like it
around the country.
At Detroit Diesel, the UAW and management are
working together to improve quality control and to create a
state-of-the-art, high-performance workplace. And the end
result -- the end result -- is that you've increased market
share, fewer jobs have been lost, and America leads the world
in what is done. That is the kind of history that we are
making every day with your help.
You know, it is that spirit of cooperation that has
resulted in domestic auto sales up 23 percent this year, auto
production up 27 percent, the domestic market share the
highest in any year since 1979, the last time a Democrat was
in the White House.
The UAW deserves a lot of credit for that and this
President and this Administration knows that and I want to
salute all of you. I also want to thank you for what you
have done on behalf of health care throughout the years. You
know, 50 years ago, Walter Reuther and Harry Truman shared a
vision of national health insurance and today, Owen Bieber
and Bill Clinton share that vision, and this year we're going
to get it done.
You know, I've gone back and read some of President
Truman's speeches when he introduced national health care.
He did it twice. He did it in '46; he did it again in '48.
The UAW was there. Not many other people were because not
many understood the issue then and, in those days, the
special interests spent millions and millions of dollars to
scare people but, you know, they made the same arguments then
that they're making today, and President Truman gave barn-
burning speeches and he got criticized, as he did day in and
day out, for standing up and telling it like it is.
Well, I think we owe Harry Truman and Walter
Reuther our best efforts because they deserve to see their
dream come true.
And, you know, health care reform is not an
isolated legislative goal. It's not something that stands
out there all by itself. It has a history. It goes back to
Franklin Roosevelt, when he thought that health security
would be the other part of Social Security. It goes to Harry
Truman. It goes to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who
tried and finally got Medicare and Medicaid so that at least
our older Americans and our poorest, most defenseless
Americans would have some health security.
So there is a long history of Presidents trying to
get real health care reform but, in this -- that's true;
that's true. But I will say this -- and I take a big risk
saying it to this crowd but I'll say it -- that even Richard
Nixon proposed national health care reform in 1972 and, you
know, even he couldn't get it done. So this is not just a
Democrat-Republican problem. When the special interests line
up against you, it is a problem for government. It is a
problem for leadership, trying to be sure that we can have
our voices heard.
But health care reform is part of a larger agenda
that this President and the UAW are fighting for. You helped
us on family and medical leave. We finally had a President
who would sign it, in order for parents to be good workers as
well as family members.
You helped us by reaching your hands out to other
working people in the budget last year. Remember that budget
that all the Republicans said was going to drive us into a
deep recession, going to stall any kind of sales of homes or
automobiles? You remember that, don't you? And, instead,
what did we do? We passed the first responsible budget in 12
years that told the truth to the American people, and it is
And one of the things that you did in that
supportive effort was to help other working Americans who do
not have the income from the jobs they get up and go to every
single day to stay out of poverty, so we are now, for 17
million working families in America, going to reform the Tax
Code so that this April 15th they will pay less than they did
last year and they'll be able to take care of their kids and
maybe buy a new car for a change.
And, with your help -- with your help -- this
President will pass what is being called the Re-employment
Act. We are tired of the Unemployment Act. We want people
back in jobs and we want to change the system.
We're moving on a lot of other fronts. We've got a
crime bill up there that, if we finally get it through the
gridlock of this Congress with the Republicans making one set
of arguments on the other side, if we finally get it through,
we will have 100,000 more police on the street doing what
police should do -- making you safer in your homes and your
And we will also be doing something that the
Republicans have talked about for a long time but never got
around to doing, and that is reforming the welfare system so
that it is a second chance and not a way of life for people.
So all of this is going on and a lot more; but what
is really at the centerpiece of this is our effort to make
Americans more secure again, to give every one of us the
feeling that the American dream is back within our reach, and
there is no more important issue to be able to do that than
health care reform.
There are still some in our country who claim there
is no health care crisis. You hear them. You see them.
They are always people who have their own health insurance,
aren't they? They are always people who have enough money so
that they can say, "Oh, there's no crisis," because they know
they'll be taken care of.
Well, those people haven't spent the last year the
way I have, going into workplaces, going into hospitals,
visiting with men and women and children who have found
themselves on the outskirts of our health care system. This
is not just about the people who don't have health insurance
because there is not one person in this country today with
insurance who knows he will have the same insurance for the
same price to cover the same benefits this time next year.
Employers go out of business. They figure out how
to abrogate their contracts with unions. They shut down in
giving benefits to their people. You get sick and all of a
sudden you've got a pre-existing condition and you're no
longer eligible. You have a lifetime limit that is in your
insurance policy and somebody gets really, really ill and you
hit that limit.
There are millions and millions and millions of
reasons why not one of us, no matter how well-insured we are
-- and you have been so fortunate because your leadership has
fought for some of the greatest health benefits of any group
in this country -- but even you, even you cannot be secure in
the system we currently have. No one is. And what we have
to do is to face up to the fact that yes, we do have the
finest doctors and nurses and hospitals in the world but we
have the stupidest financing system for health care in the
And what the President wants to do is to preserve
what works and fix what's broken, and he has five major
points that I want to stress with you tonight, because this
is what you're fighting for when you endorse this health
plan, as President Bieber has already referred to.
The first is guaranteed private insurance that can
never be taken away. It will be yours forever. And that
means that it doesn't matter where you live or who you work
for, how old you are, whether you're sick or you have someone
in your family who is sick.
You will always be guaranteed insurance and you
will be guaranteed benefits as good as what members of
Congress get. And we want to make sure -- we want to make
sure -- that the benefits that the UAW has bargained for are
protected and, in the President's plan, they are. You get to
keep your benefits.
There are other alternatives out there that would
not enable you to keep your benefits. They would start
taxing those benefits. They would only give tax preference
if you went into certain plans but not others.
You know, it's been a long time since the wages of
working people in this country rose at the steady rate they
should have because of the economic policies of the previous
Administrations. How unfair it is to even consider taxing
benefits when benefits were the only part of wages and
compensation that continued to increase during the 1980s.
And we want to be sure that the benefits guaranteed
to every American include things that you take for granted in
your plans but most Americans don't have. We want to include
mental health benefits. There are many people with serious
problems that need the same help for a mental illness that
they get for a physical illness.
We want to be sure -- we want to be sure that we
take care of primary and preventive health care. How did we
ever get into the situation in our country where, if you took
your child for a checkup, trying to be a good mother or
father, that wasn't reimbursed by insurance but, if your
child got sick in the middle of the night and you went to the
emergency room, that was paid for by insurance? Let's start
paying for preventive health care in order to take care of
our people better than we do today.
The second point we're fighting for is to preserve
your choice of doctor and health plan because what is
happening in today's marketplace is that many insurers and
many employers are beginning to tell workers what doctors
they can use and what hospitals they can go to. We don't
agree with that. We don't think it should be an insurance
company's choice as to what doctor you see. We think it
ought to be your choice and, under the President's plan, that
choice is preserved.
And there will always be at least three choices
and, in most metropolitan areas, many, many more choices, but
at least three. You can go to any doctor in the phone book;
you can join a network of doctors that have pooled together
-- often called prepaid medical organization -- or you can
join a health maintenance organization. But it will be your
choice, not anybody else's. That is a cornerstone of the
President's plan that we are fighting for.
The third point is we want to outlaw unfair
insurance practices once and for all. We intend to be able
to say to the American people that health insurance will mean
what it should mean and what it used to mean. Everybody pays
something, they pay the same amount, and everybody is
You don't have to pay more if you all of a sudden
find out you've got diabetes or if you have a child who's
born with a serious illness. You have the right to be able
to have your illnesses and your accidents and your diseases
insured against without being discriminated against because
you once were sick.
Every one of us will someday get sick and every one
of us sure enough is going to get old, so we have this old-
fashioned idea that young people and older people and well
people and sick people -- we ought to be in this together.
So let's outlaw pre-existing condition that make you pay more
or keep you out of insurance altogether.
Under the President's reform plan, it will be
illegal for insurance companies to charge you more if you get
sick, to raise your rates if you've ever been sick, to drop
coverage or cut benefits, to impose lifetime limits to cut
off your benefits, or to charge older people more than
If we do nothing, you, even though you bargain hard
and you've got able leadership in that bargaining, you will
be at the mercy of insurance companies who want to make their
money by only insuring people who have never been sick and
they think never will be sick but will just drop dead one
day, and that's a life insurance problem, not a health
Now, fourth, we want to protect and improve
Medicare because Medicare has worked for older Americans and
what we want to do is add two benefits to Medicare that need
to be there.
Number one, we want to extend prescription drug
coverage to Medicare recipients.
And, number two, we want to begin to offer
alternatives to older Americans and disabled Americans other
than nursing homes. If you want to keep your mother or your
father or your child at home and that person has serious
health problems, you ought to be able to get a little bit of
help to do that instead of having only the nursing home as
And the fifth point is, we want to guarantee health
coverage at the workplace. It is the easiest, simplest way
to make sure everyone has coverage. Most Americans, most of
us in this room -- all of us in this room -- we get our
insurance at our workplace. Eight out of ten of the
Americans -- the nearly 40 million Americans, that's 32
million plus -- eight out of ten are working Americans; they
work in jobs, though, without health benefits.
Does it make any sense to you that 32 million-plus
Americans get up every day and they go to work -- they serve
you in restaurants, they wash your cars, they pump you gas,
they work in our retail stores -- they pay taxes which goes
to provide health benefits to people on Welfare, when they
don't even have those benefits for themselves. That is not
There are two additional points that I want to
stress, particularly for you and for your union.
The President's reform will protect early retirees
-- a major problem in many industries. Many companies, as
you well know, are thinking about or already have eliminated
early retirement benefits and, for Americans between the ages
of 55 and 64, this can mean extremely expensive premiums that
offer mediocre protection, or no insurance at all.
The President's reform will solve that by having
the government cover the employer's share for most early
retirees. We don't think it is right that people between
those ages before they are eligible for Medicare often find
themselves with increasing health problems and decreasing
health insurance protection. That needs to be remedied and
the President's plan prescribes how to do that.
And, finally, you know better than many in the
country that rising health costs have robbed American workers
of the wage increases that they deserve. Higher health care
costs have weakened American competitiveness overseas. You
know, for example, that General Motors spends more on health
care than on steel today. That's not good for business.
That's not good for workers. That's not good for America.
If we do not fix our health care system now, by the
end of the decade, it will cost the average working American
family over $600 in lost wages each year. We are spending
more than any of the major industrialized countries we
Think of what you have done with that burden right
around your necks in the last years as you have continued to
increase productivity and think what you could do if our
health care costs were controlled and brought down and your
employers could spend more money on wages and on other
expansions of business. We could have the boomingest economy
that we've had since the end of World War II.
But let me just add that this is not just about
money. It's not just about the five points -- guaranteed
private insurance and guaranteed choice and preserving
Medicare and outlawing insurance practices and guaranteeing
benefits at the workplace. This is an issue that goes far
Walter Reuther and Owen Bieber and many of your
leaders have not supported health care only because it was
the right thing to do for your membership. They've supported
it because it was the right thing to do for our country.
And I wish that -- I wish that every one of you
could have come with me over the past year and met the people
that I have met and heard their stories.
I wish you could have been with me in New Orleans a
I talked with a woman who had worked for the same company for
over 15 years as a bookkeeper, didn't have any insurance,
couldn't afford to buy it on her own, but every year she
tried to do the responsible thing and go to the doctor and
get a checkup. And when I talked to her last spring, she'd
been to her doctor and he'd found a lump in her breast and he
had referred her to a surgeon and the surgeon had told her,
"If you had insurance, we'd biopsy that lump but, since you
don't, we are just going to watch it."
I wish you had been with me in Las Vegas, in a
hospital. Some people go to Las Vegas for other --
- nest egg. The one way he was able to keep his
wife at home with him was for his daughter to quit her job as
a schoolteacher to come home to take care of her mother.
Once his daughter quit her job, she no longer had insurance
and they didn't have enough money for her to be insured.
And here is this man, doing what every one of us
would want to support and encourage -- taking care of his own
family -- and a daughter who's coming home to take care of a
mother. They didn't want to warehouse her in a nursing home.
They wanted to keep her in the loving atmosphere of that
family. They did not get any financial help because, under
our current rules, there is nothing between being heathy and
ending up in a nursing home when you're a certain age unless
you spend yourself into poverty and then you can qualify for
some limited assistance.
This man wasn't asking for a handout. He was
asking for a little bit of help that will save us money
because we will pay if she's in a nursing home. We should
pay a little bit to support him and his daughter as they're
trying to keep their mother and wife at home.
And I wish, finally -- I wish you had been with me
at the Cleveland Rainbow Children's Hospital one day when I
met a lot of the wonderful doctors and nurses who perform
miracles for children there just like they do across our
country in our children's hospitals, and I talked to a couple
who had three children -- the first a healthy young boy about
ten and then two daughters, both of whom were born with
congenital diseases. And, every time I meet somebody like
that I think, "There, but for the grace of God, go any of
And these two little girls racked up enormous
medical bills in their young lives. They busted their
parents' lifetime limits. They then became uninsurable. And
this mother told me about how proud she and her husband were.
They didn't want to take Welfare. They didn't want to take
assistance. They wanted to pay their own way.
And they went from insurance company to insurance
company, and they never got anywhere and, finally, one
insurance agent, after hearing their story and how sick their
daughters were, looked at them and said, "What you don't
understand is we don't insure burning houses."
I want you to think about how you would feel if
that were said to you about one of your children. I know how
I would feel, and I want my daughter to grow up and live in a
country where that can never be said again to anybody at all.
We have a really tough fight ahead of us -- and I
love this button. Thank you for making it. Thank you for
wearing it. But if we get health care reform like we're
going to get this year in Congress, it's not going to be
because of me.
It's going to be because of you and it's going to
be because you will spend your time between now and the day
the President signs that bill telling your friends and
neighbors, telling your Members of Congress, telling your
leadership that this has to be done because that is what is
going to be necessary for this country finally to make good
on what the promise of its destiny is to every one of us --
that if you work hard and you play by the rules, you are
going to deserve and receive social and health security just
like Franklin Roosevelt tried to do, just like Harry Truman
tried to do, and now Owen Bieber and Bill Clinton are going
to get it done.
Thank you very much.
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