Milken Institute School of Public Health Hosts Labor Secretary

Tom Perez discusses the legacy of the Affordable Care Act and America’s “social compact 2.0.”

Labor Secretary Tom Perez at GW Milken Institute SPH
May 24, 2016

By Brittney Dunkins

 Labor Secretary Tom Perez offered a bright jobs outlook earlier this month to George Washington University students at the Milken Institute School of Public Health.

During an intimate exchange with Milken Institute SPH and GW Law students—many of them graduating seniors—Mr. Perez said that with 14.5 million jobs created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and steady growth in the healthcare sector, their skills are needed.

“First, congratulations, I know that a substantial amount of you are walking out of the door tomorrow and into the workforce,”. Perez said. “It’s our job, and it will be your job, to make sure that people get a fair shake. That is why I am so excited to see so many public health and law students in the room today. There is work to be done.”

Sara Rosenbaum, founding chair of the Milken Institute SPH Department of Health Policy, organized the visit. Dr. Rosenbaum previously had worked with Mr. Perez when he headed the Office for Civil Rights within the United States Department of Health and Human Services and made community integration for Medicaid beneficiaries with disabilities a top civil rights priority in the wake of a landmark United States Supreme Court decision.

Mr. Perez’s address to students touched on the success and future of the ACA, the need for a new “social compact” between employers and their workers and a call to graduates to tackle issues of equality and access to healthcare.

The legacy of the ACA

According to Mr. Perez, a partisan-backed marketing campaign has worked to cast the ACA as a “job killer” that infringes on the private health care insurance industry, but in reality the bill has created 14.5 million jobs.

“I can’t understand why so many folks want to make it so hard for people to get healthy and become taxpayers,” he said.

The Secretary said that the “untold story” of the ACA, includes decreasing health care costs and coverage for at-risk populations, including African Americans, Latinos and low-income Americans. 

For example, Mr. Perez told the story of Ward, a man suffering with hepatitis B. Ward’s condition went untreated because his employer didn’t provide healthcare and he couldn’t afford independent coverage. Subsequently, he lost his job.

On March 1, 2015, Ward signed up for the ACA health exchange at a rate of $45 per month and by March 15, he had received a liver transplant.

“As more and more people get coverage, the ACA will no longer be an abstract construct,” he  said. “There will be an undeniable record that more people are receiving the care they need.”

However, the bill is not without its flaws, he stated, noting that it will be important to revisit the ACA and address areas that need improvement.

“I remember working on a hate crimes bill in 1996, and it was much less complicated, but even with that bill we had to go back and change a few things to make them more clear,” Mr. Perez said. “We need to do the same with the ACA.”

The ‘social compact 2.0’
Mr. Perez called the ACA the “greatest addition to the social compact since Medicare and Medicaid.” He explained the “social compact 2.0” as an insurance of equal protections and care for workers in a flexible economy.

For example, he cited the booming “sharing economy,” dominated by high growth startups such as Uber Inc. as proof that workers are trending toward more flexible work schedules. He added that recent cases in which customers with disabilities were denied access to Uber’s services, show that these companies need to practice “inclusive innovation.”

“Innovation that excludes people is problematic, and I’m not sure that I’m ready to call it innovation until they can make it work for everyone: their workers and every customer, including those with disabilities,” he said.

Mr. Perez added that equality is needed across the board for workers in terms of equal access and protection under the law, which requires action at every level of government.

For example, he said, the question of raising the minimum wage should not be a question. Since 1938 every U.S. president except two—Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan—has raised the minimum wage.

“You try living a week on seven and a quarter per hour and trying to feed your family,” he said. “You can’t do it.”

A call to graduates

Mr. Perez closed by challenging graduates to use their skills to help those who need it, no matter how long it takes.

He recounted a 2014 announcement of a law mandating a reduction in coal miners’ exposure to coal dust. He said that the rule was first proposed in 2010 but seeded by the work of famed Labor Secretary Frances Perkins—whom he referred to as the “gold standard of labor secretaries.” Ms. Perkins was the first woman appointed to a presidential cabinet and a key advisor to the president during the Great Depression.

“It was a long time coming,” Perez said. “But what I remember about that day was the clicking sound of the oxygen tanks of coal miners in the audience who had suffered from exposure. I challenge you all to measure your success by your ability to help others.”

Student Life, Brittney Dunkins