State community organizers lead the way in national healthcare reform
By Emily Miles
On March 25, 2010, Vermont became the first state to begin passing legislation promoting a state single- payer healthcare system since the initial overhaul of national healthcare reform (House Bill 676) in March 2009.
While most American policy negotiation is limited to legislative offices and lobbyist statements, a burgeoning involvement from community organizers has, for some, transformed the healthcare battle into a humanitarian issue. A national grassroots healthcare movement has been growing in the United States for nearly 10 years and has only increased since Obama’s recent reforms. Local community members are now organizing by the thousands, with sit-ins, petitions and rallies at state capitals.
The Green Mountain State Goes Universal
Following the election of new Democratic Gov. Peter Shulmin, who ran on the platform of a single-payer system, state healthcare legislation has reached actuality for the first time in Vermont. On March 25, the Vermont State House voted in favor of House Bill 202 to move toward a universal system. The plan is developed in three prongs of coverage: state, private and mixed coverage. Regardless of the plan accessed by individuals, care is guaranteed by the state.
“This is truly an example of democracy at its finest,” said Mary Gerisch, member of the Vermont Workers’ Center Steering Committee. “It’s the people of Vermont banding together as humans and as a community.”
Over the past five years, The Vermont Workers’ Center has led a grassroots campaign by holding hearings, gathering healthcare stories and meeting with legislators and community members to rally around universal care. The plan, developed in part with Gov. Shulmin and healthcare expert Wm Hsaio, is called “Green Mountain Care” and commits the state of Vermont to implement a new healthcare system based on the motto “Health Care is a Human Right.”
“This is our way of communicating the idea of universal coverage for all people,” Gerisch said. “It truly is something that all people deserve.”
The VWC aims to support workers throughout the state who are trying to improve their wages, benefits, rights on the job, working conditions and their communities. Their main efforts lie in organizing rallies, public hearings, forums, publicizing people’s stories and direct action.
“We believe that the most effective means of change is people engaging in collective struggle to place direct demands upon those who hold power,” Gerisch said.
As Vermont nears its final stages of voting on a single-payer system, the organization is now looking outside of the state for education and collaboration. In February Gerisch teamed up with organizers from Single Payer New York, Healthcare Task Force and Ithaca College to bring the grassroots success story to Ithaca in a series of panel discussions and speaker events.
Legislation from the Ground Up
In 2009, 46.3 million Americans under the age of 65 were living without health insurance. According to the 2009 National Health Interview Survey taken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this number has steadily increased following the national recession of 2008.
Before Obama took office, the national healthcare debate largely consisted of decades of failed attempts to reform by a string of Democratic presidents and years of bitter partisan combat. But after a staggering year of legislative battle, President Obama signed H.R. 676 to begin to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system on March 23, 2009.
Not only was this the largest single legislative achievement of his first two years, but it was by far the most controversial. Not a single Republican voted for the final version, and Republicans around the country campaigned against the proposed reform. After November elections, healthcare was not only at the top of each party’s agenda for opposite reasons—but it was also at the top of each American’s agenda for the same reason.
Grassroots activist events like those mentioned in Vermont are found often in community centers with a collection of acoustic musicians crooning the social justice blues; tables covered with hummus, fresh veggies and fresh baked bread; and flocks of graying advocates chatting about local struggles. But for the first time in years, these popular gatherings are not merely found in small, liberal towns. They are becoming more widespread and are focusing on healthcare reform.
Small Town, Big Health Care
Rebecca Elgie, co-founder of Single Payer New York and leader of the Healthcare Task Force in Ithaca, believes the Vermont example of citizen involvement has been the driving force behind any legislative progress.
According to a New York Times poll from 2009, 72 percent of those interviewed supported a government-run national healthcare program similar to Medicare for citizens under the age of 65.
“This is a social movement from the people to the people,” Elgie said. “Politicians cannot avoid that kind of national voice.” Elgie said that while this is a political discussion, the people are the most important part of the story.
Elgie worked as a schoolteacher for 40 years before entering the healthcare reform scene. As a union worker, she realized how difficult it would have been to afford health care without the support of a union. Elgie has since dedicated the past eight years of her life to evaluating national healthcare policy and bringing education about the issue to a local level.
“I was shocked by the underhanded practice of the for-profit health insurance industry,” Elgie said. “And I eventually grew to understand that health care is a human right, not a privilege tied to the ability to pay.”
It is this exact attitude currently propelling statewide grassroots movements across the country. Elgie now joins a large network of grassroots activists, union workers and physicians in a movement to reform national health care.
She now serves as a board member of Healthcare-NOW!, a national organization that advocates for the passage of national, single-payer healthcare legislation. She also serves as the co-chair of Single Payer New York and is a member of Potlucks and Politics, advocacy networks that focus on health care in New York State.
Additionally, as the co-director of the Tompkins County Health Care Task Force, an organization that advocates for universal health care, Elgie is now one of the leading advocates in Ithaca. The group formed three years ago to push for a universal, affordable healthcare plan in the United States, largely in support of the National Health Insurance Act (H.R. 676).
As Elgie gears up for the next phase of the healthcare campaign in New York, she plans on implementing the innovative strategies of the Vermont Workers’ Center into the local Task Force campaign. As these grassroots initiatives spread through local activist cultures, other parties are becoming involved as well.
Doctors without Insurance
On March 25, medical school students from 36 different schools and 15 states gathered at the Vermont Capitol in support of a state healthcare plan. These students came with the message that they would move to Vermont in order to practice in a single-payer system. Protests like the one in Montpelier are becoming increasingly popular as doctors and physicians begin to join the grassroots fight.
Active New York state physician and organizer Andy Coates began to realize the staggering disparities in the quality and availability of health care early in his career, but he felt disconnected as a physician.
“As a physician, I became very aware of the importance of grassroots organizing in every community,” Coates said.
In 2008, Coates joined local organizers, physicians and union workers to found Single Payer New York. This organization focuses on policy change on both the state and national level.
Coates argues that the increase in connection between grassroots movements and private sector of workers is a driving force behind changing healthcare reform.
“Underinsured, uninsured, union or not— everyone needs help right now,” Coates said. “And the only way we can make that happen is to reach out across all of these divisions and collaborate.”
Currently, individual states are working toward receiving federal waivers that will allow for single-payer systems state by state as an “in-the-meantime fix” before adequate national legislation passes.
“But what people don’t realize is that amount of effort would equal that of challenging national reform,” Coates said.
Six months after the passage of H.R. 676, Coates is still working with SPNY to further reform on a national level, rather than solely focusing on state changes.
In New York, a state healthcare reform bill that has been on the table since 1992, but now, with a newly elected Democratic senate and governor, Coates believes that A2356 and Senate Bill 2370 “should pass.”
Coates thinks this legislative progress will only further renew efforts around the national bill as well.
Next on the Ballot
“At this point, it is essential that we work together as a national grassroots collaboration of students, union workers, physicians and organizers,” Mary Gerisch of the Vermont Workers’ Center said. “But most importantly, we must work together as people.”
As Vermont nears its final stages of voting, it joins a growing list of states to pursue a universal system: Massachusetts, Illinois, Oregon, California, Minnesota and Pennsylvania have all either begun the process or committed to a statewide universal system. It is now the decision of national and state legislators to respond to increasing public movements.
“We have decided as individuals,” Gerisch said. “Now we must decide as a nation.”
Emily Miles is a sophomore journalism major who gives out free bandages on Thursdays. Email her at [email protected].