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AFL-CIO’s Trumka: Obamacare still needs fixing

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The head of America's top labor group said Thursday that President Obama's health care law is a step in the right direction but it "wasn't thought completely through" and he is still pressing the White House to fix it.

Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said he would support legislation that changes Obamacare's definition of a full-time work week from 30 hours to a more traditional 40-hour standard.

Critics of the law say the 30-hour cutoff has forced fast-food chains and other employers to trim employees' hours to keep them at part-time status and avoid penalties tied to the law's employer mandate, which requires companies with 50 or more full-time workers to provide health coverage or pay fines.

"That is obviously something that no one intended," he said during a wide-ranging interview hosted by the Christian Science Monitor in Washington.

While labor unions try to repair the president's health care plan, the leading business lobby on Thursday was piling on more criticism.

Randel Johnson, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday that the chamber's warnings that the health care law would reduce employment are proving true, and that the American people were sold "a bill of goods" when the Obama administration said the law would reduce costs in addition to insuring more Americans.

He said the chamber is working on various "improvements" to the law on Capitol Hill, notably eliminating the employer mandate and repealing a 2.3. percent excise tax on medical device manufacturers and an annual tax on health insurers tied to health premiums collected each year that will be phased in from 2014 to 2018.

The Obama administration recently delayed the employer mandate by one year, to 2015, but it's not the only piece of the Affordable Care Act that is giving unions heartburn.

Several labor unions, including the powerful Teamsters, penned letters last month accusing Democratic leaders of breaking promises they made to unions in exchange for their support for Mr. Obama's signature law.

Specifically, they complained that health plans administered jointly by unions and employers under the Taft-Hartley Act — a type of plan in which many union members participate — will not be eligible for government subsidies to offset premium costs.

Mr. Trumka on Thursday praised Mr. Obama's reforms as a whole, but he will meet with Obama administration officials to discuss how the law treats union members' multiemployer plans.

"We've been working with the administration to find solutions to what I think are inadvertent holes in the act," Mr. Trumka said.

When pressed, he said he could not talk about specific solutions because the issue is a "moving target."

Republican opponents of Mr. Obama's law are relishing the wavering support of the union movement, traditionally a reliable ally for the Democratic Party.

The White House is highlighting states where premiums are expected to decrease because of competition in the new state-based insurance "exchanges," while the law's opponents are pointing to states where rates will likely soar.

Mr. Trumka said it was a bad idea to take a "public option" off the table during debate over the law in Congress, arguing that a government-run standard would have instilled competition in insurance markets dominated by one or two large insurers.

"That, to me, was a mistake," he said.

On a separate issue, the AFL-CIO chief said he was leaning toward Federal Reserve Board Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen as his preferred choice to succeed Ben S. Bernanke this fall as the nation's top central banker. Supporters of Ms. Yellen and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers are engaged in an unexpectedly fierce lobbying war as Mr. Obama weighs his choice.

"History would indicate that [Ms. Yellen] is for a much more balanced approach, and thus a better approach, than Larry Summers has" been, Mr. Trumka said. "If he continues to say we're only going to deal with inflation, then we would not support that because that's been corrosive for the country and bad for the economy."

⦁ Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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