NYC teach-in for single-payer

July 29, 2009

NEW YORK--More than 100 people gathered in midtown Manhattan in response to the ongoing crisis in the U.S. health care system and to organize for a single-payer solution.

Hosted by Private Health Insurance Must Go (PHIMG) and Healthcare-Now! (HCN), the teach-in brought together a broad array of activists, medical professionals, students and retirees. The event was both educational about the superiority of single-payer systems and a call for escalating the struggle by using more militant tactics.

The event was kicked off with a presentation exposing the current debate on "reform" in Congress and its many failings. An exhaustive report from Dr. Mary O'Brien illuminated how single-payer would be cheaper and more efficient than the current for-profit system. Health care premiums have risen unchecked in the U.S., leading to the highest expenditures per person in the world.

In comparison to other industrialized countries that have seen modest growth in the cost of health care, the U.S. system has seen a 119 percent increase in cost over the last 10 years. Almost 30 percent of health care costs arise from administering the private insurance system, from hospital administration billing to the insurers' bureaucratic costs.

O'Brien stressed that the sources of the problem are the unaccountable, profit-driven insurers that act as middlemen between patients and caregivers. "What is the first thing you hear when you walk into a doctor's office?" she asked. "'What kind of insurance do you have?' Imagine if you walked in and heard, 'How are you? What brought you here today?'"

Having the wrong answer to the question "What kind of insurance do you have?" can be deadly. Currently over 18,000 people die every year because they either have no insurance or are denied services by insurers.

While conservatives torpedo anything approaching change and Democrats pretend to resist, the Medicare for All bills--HR676 and S703--languish in the shadows. These bills have stalled session after session while lobbyists pour money into both parties to protect an inefficient but highly profitable system.

Last year, Aetna CEO Ronald Williams "earned" $23 million for managing to deny as many patients treatments as possible. Advocates of HR676 and S703--unlike the proposals currently being discussed in Congress--can point to where to raise the funds for coverage through payroll taxes and taxing the wealthy.

THE SECOND half of the teach-in focused on using direct action to push for real reform, and was kicked off by PHIMG leader Ajamu Sankofa who argued that the time is now to "upgrade" the struggle by using direct action and civil disobedience. A roundtable of activists drew on their experiences and those of historic struggles to make the case for more militant tactics.

Katie Robbins, assistant director of Healthcare-Now! and a member of the Baucus Eight--eight activists who stood up and interrupted the Senate health care hearings on May 5--spoke about the widespread support for single-payer. HCN has established chapters in 42 states.

John Riley of ACT UP spoke about building a multi-pronged movement, but emphasized the necessity of a strong radical wing ready to disrupt business as usual and reach larger numbers of people. Referencing the civil rights movement, the women's movement and the gay rights movement, Riley argued that direct action was key to progress in past struggles.

The final speaker, Nadina LaSpina, who organizes with Disabled in Action and ADAPT, spoke about the long struggle of the disabled against the lack of access to transportation, housing and employment. ADAPT was key to winning access on public transportation in New York for the disabled and for the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. She pointed out that wheelchairs can be something of a boon in direct action. "We take up a lot of room!" LaSpina said. "We can really get in the way."

The discussion section brought out questions about how to reach out to people who are confused that Obama's "public option" is a step toward single-payer, and why the movement has to take a strong stand against the administration's proposals and keep fighting for real solutions.

A controversial point for several attendees was what to say about Rep. Dennis Kucinich's amendment to the House bill, which would allow states the right to establish single-payer locally. Some saw this as a good move that could allow the U.S. to follow in the footsteps of Canada, where the success of the Saskatchewan system led to a nationwide system.

While this could be true in the abstract, the amendment creates a left cover for representatives who should vote against a terrible bill to support it. At the same time, the idea that any state would, on its own, undertake switching over to single-payer during a dire economic crisis is unlikely.

In a debate about national reform, Kucinich could have used his platform as a member of Congress to talk about HR676/S703. Instead, he muddied the waters at a time when sincere supporters of single-payer are being misled into thinking that some positive reform is being worked out in Congress.

Many ideas for direct action--from coordinated sit-ins in Congress members' district offices to a citywide mobilization to shut down a key area of Manhattan--were brought to the table. A march/lobby day in Washington, D.C., is already planned for July 30, and a follow-up meeting is set for August 4.

As John Riley from ACT UP pointedly said, "We have to stop being trapped by thinking what reform is 'possible' right now. We need to ask how do we make the impossible happen." It may be a long struggle, but with enough people active around the country, the "impossible" dream of single-payer can become a reality in the U.S.

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