HEALTHCARE IN AMERICA….It’s official. The grocery strike has been settled:

The stores accomplished such goals as installing a two-tier system of employee compensation, under which new hires would earn considerably less in wages and benefits than current employees, the sources said.

There also would be a cap on how much the supermarkets contribute to their employees’ healthcare coverage, a change the stores aggressively sought in order to combat rising healthcare costs, they said. Until now, all of the workers’ healthcare costs have been borne by the stores.

I wonder if conservatives realize that it’s this kind of thing that’s bringing national healthcare closer and closer to reality? The healthcare debate always seems to be focused on the 43 million Americans who don’t have health insurance, but let’s be brutally honest: those 43 million people are mostly at the bottom rungs of the income ladder and most people don’t care that much about them.

What they do care about is their own healthcare. And while most Americans don’t know any poor people, they do have neighbors who are seeing their health benefits slowly deteriorate. Across the street is a guy whose company has eliminated dental and vision coverage. Next door is a single mother whose copay has doubled in the past five years and is set to increase again next month. At soccer practice is a guy who just had to switch his longtime doctor because his company changed to a cheaper plan. At church on Sunday is a woman who can’t get an operation to relieve her bursitis because her company’s plan no longer covers that.

It’s not the 43 million Americans who completely lack health insurance that scares most people, it’s the steady deterioration in their own benefits, and every time they or a friend lose a little chunk of those benefits it adds to their fear of a future personal health crisis. When that fear becomes widespread enough ? when the implicit contract of healthcare via employers deteriorates past a certain point ? then people will start demanding government action.

Conservatives love to extol the virtues of an unregulated free market and castigate unions for interfering with it. But as unions lose influence, the unrestrained free market is slowly but inexorably reducing health benefits for workers beyond what they’ll tolerate. And in the end that’s going to eliminate the free market’s role in healthcare entirely. Ironic, isn’t it?

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