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Legislative Update May 2010

Health Care Legislation

The highly controversial Health Care Legislation passed in March, expanding coverage to an estimated 32 million more Americans. H.R. 3590, the original legislation that passed in the Senate, was signed by the President on March 23, and he then signed H.R. 4872, the reconciliation legislation, on March 30. This legislation:

  • Provides access to health care coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions.
  • Eliminates exclusions on insurance for children with pre-existing conditions.
  • Prohibits insurance companies from canceling policies when individuals get sick.
  • Prohibits health insurers from denying coverage for procedures based on a pre-existing condition.
  • Eliminates lifetime caps.
  • Limits the ability for health insurers to charge higher rates due to health status, gender or other factors.
  • Allows adult children to stay on parents’ insurance until age 26
  • Begins closing Medicare Part D donut hole by providing a $250 rebate in 2010 for enrollees who enter donut hole and then phasing in discounts on brand name and generic drugs to eliminate donut hole by 2020.
  • Requires health plans to report the share of premium dollars spent on medical care and provide rebates to customers if the ratio is too high.
  • Improves customer assistance by awarding grants to states to establish health insurance consumer assistance programs to respond to complaints and inquiries.
  • Establishes health insurance exchanges in each state open to individuals and small employers and administers tax credits so people can buy affordable coverage.
  • Imposes penalties for individuals who do not purchase health care coverage by 2014, but gives tax credits for purchase of coverage.
  • Contains the excise tax, with some changes.
  • Requires that health insurance premiums in excess of $10,200 for individuals and $27,500 for families be subject to the 40 percent excise tax, with increased thresholds for seniors. Dental and Vision plans will not be included in taxable premiums. The tax would go into effect in 2018. The thresholds are indexed to the Consumer Price Index (Urban areas).

Reauthorization of Surface Transportation Board

  1. 2889, a bill to reauthorize the Surface Transportation Board, was introduced by Senator Jay Rockefeller on 12/16/09, and reported out by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The railroads fear that this legislation will be tantamount to re-regulation and reduce their money-making ability because it protects shippers. A companion bill has not yet been introduced in the House and a House hearing on the issue has been postponed indefinitely.

The bill proposes to make the STB an independent government agency, no longer governed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and provides the board appropriations for fiscal years 2010 through 2014. It would also expand the STB from three commissioners to five; add a ninth voting member to the Railroad-Shipper Transportation Advisory Council; provide funding for an Office of Public Assistance, Government Affairs, and Compliance that would be authorized to mediate disputes, monitor railroad operations, and appoint a customer advocate to address shipper inquiries; and enable the STB to eliminate paper barriers.

Railroad Tax Credits

Several pieces of legislation amend the tax code to provide for railroad infrastructure tax credits. Among these are H.R. 1789 and H.R. 1806. These bills amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide incentives to encourage investment in the expansion of freight rail infrastructure capacity and to enhance modal tax equity. It gives the railroads a 25 percent tax credit on qualifying infrastructure and locomotive properties. It can be used to finance positive train control implementation. It also extends the maintenance tax credit for shortlines.

Employee Free Choice Act

Compromise legislation is being worked out. Supporters of the legislation are concerned about getting cloture to bring the legislation to the floor for a vote and are considering using budget reconciliation as a way to get it passed in the Senate. Cloture requires 60 votes, but budget reconciliation only requires a simple majority of 51 votes.

The Employee Free Choice Act is built on three fundamental principles and labor believes any compromise should contain these principles:

  • Workers need to have a real choice to form a union and bargain for a better life, free from intimidation;
  • We have to stop the endless delays; companies can’t just stall to stop workers’ choice;
  • There have to be real penalties for violating the law.

Family Medical Leave Act Amendment

The  BLET is working on an amendment to the Family and Medical Leave Act that would lower the threshold for hours worked for railroad operating crews.
There have been multiple meetings with Committee staffs and members of Congress. Two-thirds of our BLET members work in pools or on extra boards. A percentage of these members do not meet the current threshold of hours worked (1250 hrs per year) to qualify for FMLA. The BLET feels that the solution is to include hours available to work, deadheading and limbo time in the equation.

Political Action Campaigns

It is critically important that we increase our BLET PAC membership and donations at this time in order to continue to fight for our issues, especially with the recent Supreme Court decision allowing corporate donations to political candidates. The railroads have, in the last year, asked for our support on some of their issues, but we refuse to help them because they won’t budge on ours, they lobbied for single-man operations, a 25% tax credit which would not protect workers rights, and against the costs of implementing positive train control. At the same time, the BLET has been working to protect health care benefits, expand FMLA coverage for railroad workers, ensure our employees are protected in high speed rail plans, and fully fund Amtrak.

Currently, about one-third of our BLET membership contributes the PAC, and the PAC takes in about $33,433 per month, on average. The average dollar per member amount is 88¢. The Legislative Department would like to increase this to an average of $2.50 per member.

If you are not already donating to the PAC fund through payroll deduction and you can find a way to budget just $5.00 per month, please encourage your spouse to contact the Division Legislative Representative or Secretary/Treasurer for a PAC application. It’s easy; it’s painless, and every little bit helps!

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