Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Hill on February 7, 2017.
Pam Harris, an Illinois mom who made history as the lead plaintiff in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, has a simple message for President Donald Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Tom Price.
Harris, who receives a modest monthly Medicaid stipend to care for her disabled son Josh at home, faced an attempt by the Service Employees International Union in 2009 to unionize private caregivers like her.
While she was able to beat back the Big Labor’s campaign to turn homes into union workplaces and then win right-to-work privileges for providers nationwide in her 2014 legal case, the work isn’t done.
Labor organizations — primarily the SEIU — still siphon an estimated $200 million in Medicaid funds from more than 500,000 care providers in several states, enlisting government as a payments processor.
The Trump administration and its congressional partners need to act decisively to end this scheme. In doing so, they can redirect precious dollars back to where they were originally intended to go and away from thinly veiled political machines.
How this came about in the first place is a notorious story — some would say a devious act — in labor creativity.
Facing a long decline in private sector unionism, SEIU sought to regain ground by organizing home help workers. These people were private contractors who could be labeled as government workers, though only for collective bargaining purposes, because they received money through a government-administered aid program.
SEIU entrapped workers any way it could, using executive orders in Illinois, a ballot initiative in Washington, legislation in Minnesota and administrative action in Michigan. Once in place, the union directly skimmed a portion of the Medicaid reimbursement for its own purposes, including legislative and political interests, lavish executive compensation and even Christmas parties.
The scheme didn’t go unchallenged. Bob and Pat Haynes, Michigan parents of two disabled children, decided to stand up to SEIU. The Legislature banned the practice but not before SEIU collected $34 million from tens of thousands of caregivers. After care providers in Michigan were given a choice, the membership of SEIU Healthcare Michigan dropped by 80 percent.
Pam Harris joined the fight and with help from the National Right to Work Legal Foundation, took her challenge all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But her legal victory didn’t end the scheme decisively; it only gave caregivers the option to get out.
Many have exercised that option, but others remain in the dark about their rights because unions often impose labor neutrality clauses on state administrators, forbidding them to tell caregivers what they can do. So it’s often up to informal parent networks and nonprofit groups to spread the word.
SEIU has worked hard to hold its ill-gotten gains. In Washington state, SEIU put up nearly $2 million for a ballot measure so nonprofit advocates, like those from the Freedom Foundation, couldn’t contact caregivers about their rights, under the guise of protecting seniors from identity theft. The initiative passed with 70 percent of the vote.
What should be done?
The dues skim operates in government programs run by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services within the Department of Health and Human Services.
Once confirmed, Price should initiate a rule-making process to prohibit public agencies from spending federal funds to collect so-called dues or fees on behalf of labor organizations. Unions would no longer have the convenience of a government-collected dues deduction. Much like every other organization out there, they’d have to sell and administer the benefits of membership on their own time and dime.
Congress can augment this action by attaching an appropriations rider that prohibits Medicaid funds from being skimmed into union bank accounts.
If the experiences in Illinois, Michigan and other states are any guide, caregivers just want to take care of their clients and family members. No union – SEIU or otherwise – should be able to use the tools of government to put a hand in the cookie jar.
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