Speaking out for single-payer

April 14, 2009

LOS ANGELES--Over 500 nurses, union workers and health care activists came here from all over California April 6 to rally for a national single-payer system.

Some of the groups behind the rally included the California Nurses Association (CNA), California School Employees Association, California Alliance for Retired Americans, Labor Task Force for Universal Healthcare and Single Payer Now. They came to have their voices heard at the last of the regional universal health care summits organized by Obama's White House Forum on Health Care Reform.

According to Single Payer Now and the CNA, recent summits have been very scripted and exclusionary--telling organizers that a single-payer option is "off the table" for discussion. SB 840 in California and HR 676 nationally--two pieces of legislation that call for Medicare-for-all/single-payer health care--are the CNA's vision for health care reform. California's legislature has twice voted to support a universal health care system that excludes the insurance industry, only to have it blocked both times by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"We know there is a conscious attempt to stifle our voices," said CNA/National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC) Co-President Geri Jenkins, urging a real debate over single-payer/universal health care. "As a nurse who still works at the bedside, I see up front and personal what this fractured and dysfunctional system has done to our patients and the public. We need to get the for-profit insurance industry out of the delivery of care in this country, so we can have a just and equal system with a single standard of care that everyone is entitled to."

Other speakers included Reggie Cervantes, a 9/11 rescue worker whose fight for health care was chronicled in Michael Moore's Sicko. She spoke about how she has forgone eating in order to pay for health care costs and how she traveled to Cuba to purchase vitally needed medicine.

"Mr. President, I beg you, for my life, please put HR 676 on the table and stop the insurance company bailout," Cervantes said. "I will not go silently into the night--and neither should you. I will go chanting: Health insurance is a lie; they don't care if people die!"

As the crowd took up Cervantes' chant, organizers dragged out a homemade 6-foot Trojan horse, symbolizing the other health care reforms currently being considered by the White House. HR 676 supporters argued that because most of those other solutions do not change the way we currently finance health care under the private, for-profit system, they fall woefully short of what is actually needed to solve the problem.

A member of Progressive Democrats of America-Los Angeles spoke of the general mood of hope that has swept the country:

Can we elect an African American community organizer to be president of the United States? Yes we can, and yes we did! We need to cut out the for-profit funding of health care in the United States. Today, nearly one in six Americans has no health insurance...meanwhile, the war in Iraq drains our resources and overburdens our budget. We are calling for a different kind of system--one of health care, not warfare.

United Teachers Los Angeles/AFT Vice President Josh Pechthalt spoke about the connections between health care and education:

In the education world, the issue of health care has become a crisis. The cost for health care has skyrocketed under the current system. Some of the billions we save on a single-payer system could go to reducing class sizes, stop the layoffs and improve schools. But we have to be prepared for a long term battle...if we don't get what we are asking for, then we need to be prepared continue to fight strong.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, California's first elected insurance commissioner and a longtime advocate for single-payer health care, spoke next:

Are you ready for a change? Well, let's make it happen, America. Do you have a voice? Are you ready to use that voice? As a former insurance commissioner, I know the insurance industry very well. They have but one purpose, the bottom line...It has to end, and it will end. We're in for a big fight. The insurance companies won't give their profits away freely; we're going to have to rip it away from them. How are we gonna win? By raising your voices.

ANOTHER MEMORABLE speaker was Hilda Sarkisyan, who spoke about how her 17-year-old daughter Nataline died a few days before Christmas in 2007. Although her daughter had suffered from recurrent leukemia, there was a 65 percent chance that she could have survived with a liver transplant. However, the estimated cost of the operation and a year of follow-up care was about $450,000, and Cigna HealthCare repeatedly denied the claim until it was too late. Nataline died.

"Insurance companies are getting away with murder," Sarkisyan said. "Insurance companies are only good for collecting our dollars and collection for profit. They deny people need treatment like my daughter...(while) their CEOs make millions. Insurance companies cannot decide who lives or dies. Arnold Schwarzenegger, I have a message for you: I'll be back. Wherever you are, I will be back."

According to the CNA/NNOC and Citizens Alliance for National Health Insurance, HR 676's passage would create a publicly financed, privately delivered health care program that uses the already existing Medicare program.

It proposes to expand and improve the already existing Medicare program to serve all U.S. residents, and all residents living in U.S. territories. If passed, the legislation would ensure that all Americans, guaranteed by law, would have access to the highest-quality and cost-effective health care services regardless, of one's employment, income or health care status. Under HR 676, every person would receive a National Health Insurance Card and identification number once they enroll, and there would be no co-pays or deductibles.

As it currently is written, HR 676 would cover all medically necessary services, including primary care, inpatient care, outpatient care, emergency care, prescription drugs, durable medical equipment, long-term care, mental health services, dentistry, eye care, chiropractic and substance abuse treatment. Patients would have their choice of physicians, providers, hospitals, clinics and practices. Such coverage would be totally portable and national: not tied to any job or location. Medicare will be improved and everybody will get it.

According to its proponents, the passage of HR 676--Improved Medicare-for-All--is a "win-win situation." It could transform the current bleak picture, providing guaranteed health care for all while helping financially strapped state and local governments find new monies to underwrite growing challenges. Estimates show that at least $70 billion in annual health care savings could be saved nationally.

Organizers for the Los Angeles rally vowed to continue urging Congress and the White House to pass HR 676 for the whole nation. With more organizing on the local grassroots level and throughout more unions and workplaces, a national single-payer health care program that meets all people's needs instead of profit could become a winnable struggle in this new era. That's definitely something worth fighting for today.

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