No choice for low-wage workers

Bill Jennett is operations manager for the Western Service Workers Association in Sacramento

Assembly Bill 651, which would legalize assisted suicide, is called the “Compassionate Choice” Act. But what service workers and other low-paid and uninsured workers want to know is this: What kind of “choice” is it when millions of Californians can’t choose to get the medical care they need, for lack of financial resources? Even those who have insurance coverage often are denied medical care by their health-maintenance organizations (HMOs) and insurance companies because cost savings and profits are their bottom line. Though the intent of our legislators may be to facilitate greater personal choice, economic and legal circumstances already deny that choice to millions of Californians.

With no universal health-care coverage and a medical system that’s been transformed into an industry, HMOs and insurance companies have made huge profits at the expense of patient care. For example, the employee handbook for Sharp HealthCare of San Diego stated that “all employees have the responsibility to place the interests of the HMO above their own and others”—that is, above the interests of the patients themselves! In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that patients can’t sue their HMOs for malpractice. Today, the average American family spends over 40 percent more on medical care than it did five years ago. More than 50 percent of those who declared bankruptcy in 2005 cited insurmountable medical bills as the reason for seeking debt relief.

This is the economic, political and legal context in which we must examine any move to legalize assisted suicide.

Although the intent of A.B. 651 is to offer an alternative to continued suffering to those at life’s end, how long will it be before it becomes a cost-cutting measure as HMOs and insurance companies try to avoid expensive treatments and therapies? How long before uninsured patients, terrified of mounting medical bills, decide that “assisted suicide” is a better—or at least cheaper—option than indebtedness?

Western Services Workers Association, a free and voluntary unincorporated membership association, organizes low-income workers in Sacramento to negotiate for better living and working conditions—including health care. We ask concerned citizens to join our campaign to disallow assisted suicide as an option to cut health-care costs at the expense of the growing number of people in our society with little or no access to health care. Call (916) 456-1771 to volunteer.