A SPEECH BY THE FIRST LADY TO THE UNITED AUTO
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
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.
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
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
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 working.
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 neighborhoods.
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.
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
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 entire world.
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.
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
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 insured.
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.
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 younger
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
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 your alternative.
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 right.
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.
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
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 compete with.
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 us."
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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