No sooner had the United States settled its latest battle over health care reform when it faced the greatest ecological disaster in its history with the Gulf oil spill.  Now, the challenge of stopping the leak and cleaning up the damage will occupy the Obama Administration as it also designs and implements new regulations to reshape the nation’s health care system. In both arenas, the outcomes will have far-reaching effects for most Americans.

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LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni

The brown pelicans, covered beak to wing-tips in thick crude, are the “poster children” of the ecological catastrophe now unfolding in the rich wetlands, pristine beaches and underwater habitats of the Gulf region.

Occurring in conjunction with a variety of other signs of human vulnerability, the crisis seems destined to vault environmental health concerns to a place of prominence in the American psyche unseen since the 1980s. Though the last toxic disaster of that era – the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska – has been frequently invoked in the outcry over the Gulf spill, it has been dwarfed by the BP catastrophe, which is spewing the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez tanker every ten days.

The BP spill seems to be re-awakening America’s environmental awareness. Although not itself a naturally-caused disaster, the spill’s consciousness-raising quotient is bolstered by the recent devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake and a variety of other disasters that, although natural, were abetted by social unpreparedness and government ineptitude.

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LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

As workers and contractors who are always called to the front line of hazardous work – from nuclear facility clean-up to asbestos removal and lead abatement to clean-up at Ground Zero and anthrax decontamination at U.S. post offices – Laborers and LIUNA signatory employers know from hard experience that environmental dangers are ever-present and must be carefully and appropriately addressed, both during “routine” operations and during moments of acute crisis.

As our members and signatory employers join the fight to save the Gulf region, we welcome the increased scrutiny on environmental health that this otherwise disastrous calamity has unleashed. Against that backdrop, we devote much of this LIFELINES to the newly swirling issues of toxics, the environment and our cancer risks.

Also in this issue, we continue our coverage of the nation’s accelerating agenda of health care reform. The Fund recognizes that this reform will have significant impact on Laborers, LIUNA signatory employers and our health and welfare funds.

Following up on passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in March, a variety of federal agencies are now drafting and issuing new regulations, and the LHSFNA will announce and assess these rules as they appear. A new Health Care Reform Updates section of our website has been established, and subscribers to LIFELINES ONLINE will receive immediate email notification when new rules or guidance are issued. Key features of reform will be assessed in each issue of the magazine.

Like the oil spill crisis in the Gulf, the nation’s adoption of health care reform promises ramifications for years to come. In each case, the issues are sharp and sometimes contentious. The Fund will keep you abreast of the debates, decisions and impacts as the nation shapes its future in these two volatile, yet vital arenas.