Day of action for single-payer

By David Elaine Alt, Sam Bernstein and Avery Wear

SUPPORTERS OF single-payer health care joined protests in more than 50 cities on May 30 in a National Day of Action for Single Payer Health Care. The protests, made up of workers and patients who feel the direct impact of the lack of well-funded and affordable heath care in the U.S., called on Congress to pass House Resolution (HR) 676.

HR 676 would create a publicly financed, privately delivered health care program that uses the already existing Medicare program. Health care activists--from Austin to Atlanta, Indianapolis to Philadelphia--organized protests, rallies and pickets to highlight the dangerously inadequate state of health care in the U.S. and to demand that Congress pass the only plan that guarantee everyone in the U.S. access to high-quality and cost-effective health care, regardless of one's employment or income.

-- In Seattle, more than 3,500 people from all over Washington state turned out for one of the largest rally and marches. The event was organized by 150 different unions and organizations. The Service Employees International Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, Planned Parenthood, Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) and the Washington State Nurses Alliance, among many other organizations, each mobilized hundreds of supporters.

Marchers carried banners with the official slogan of the event--"Health Care for All in 2009"--but several people brought their own more specific demands to the event, including "Universal Single Payer Health Care Now," "Hey Obama: Yes We Can Support Single Payer," "Put Single Payer Back on the Table" and "Health Care for All = Single Payer."

-- In San Francisco, about 150 people turned out for the day of action in favor of HR 676 and also to support California Senate Bill 810, which would guarantee every Californian health coverage. Favorite chants included "Everybody in, nobody out--that's what single payer is all about!" and "Health care Yes! Insurance Companies No!"

Protesters signed cards asking the Democrats to put single payer back into consideration and delivered them to Rep. Nancy Pelosi's office.

Speakers included Don Bechler from Healthcare-Now!, who spoke about why insurance companies are incapable of managing people's health care and about how the Democrats are taking single-payer off the table. A PNHP speaker had a challenge for President Obama, "Six years ago, Obama said he would choose single payer if we were starting from scratch. But we are starting from sub-scratch."

Jim Maffei, a Vietnam veteran who attended the rally, explained that he relied on Social Security to live. He was disappointed in the Democrats. "I don't understand how the Democrats get people to vote against their own interests," Maffei said. "That's been going on a long, long time."

-- In Portland, Ore., as many as 100 single-payer activists took their protest to the office of state representative Earl Blumenauer. Twenty protesters entered his office and lied down on the floor for 22 minutes in memory of the 22,000 who die every year due to lack of health insurance, according to the Institute of Medicine.

The protest was organized by Single Payer Action and included doctors, nurses and activists from Physicians for a National Health Program, Portland Jobs With Justice Healthcare Committee and local unions.

-- In San Diego, at least 100 protesters demanding single-payer health care gathered outside the Convention Center on June 4 to picket the national convention of the Association of Health Insurance Plans, an association of all the major health insurers. Politicians attending the meeting included former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The turnout at the protest was impressive for an event held during early-morning work hours. As Dr. Jeoffry Gordon of the California Physicians' Alliance said, health insurance companies have "a combined income of billions of dollars, but they don't produce anything." Gordon quoted comedian Bill Maher to characterize private health insurance, saying it's "like a hospital gown--it's flimsy, it's expensive and it doesn't cover your ass."

Mike Cope of the Progressive Democrats of America, a major sponsor of the event, pointed to Dr. Martin Luther King's words about the "spiritual death" of a nation that denies the right to health care and education. Protester Mary Ames said, "It's just time the U.S. moved toward a system similar to what exists in most other industrialized countries."

There was some difference of opinion about the role of a "public option" in health care reform, as an alternative to single payer. The Democrat-proposed "public option" would put into place a new health insurance program provided by the federal government that people could opt to join if they didn't like their private insurance plans, but it would also leave the private insurance industry intact, in effect forcing the federal government to compete with private corporations.

Most protesters seemed solidly against the plan, including Ira Robinson, who said, "If we demand the public option now, we'll be generations away from where we want to go."

Many took inspiration from the recent actions by protesters at the "Baucus Raucus Caucus," who were thrown out of a congressional hearing for refusing to let single payer be sidelined from the health care reform debate. Representatives of the California Teachers Association and California Nurses Association were on hand.