Taking the fight to the insurance industry

November 27, 2018

Sofia Arias reports from New York on a protest against an insurance industry-led conference to strategize against single-payer health care proposals.

FORTY SINGLE-payer health care activists braved freezing temperatures and an impending snowstorm to protest the annual conference of the health insurance industry in New York on November 15.

The conference — which came one week after midterm elections that showed health care was one of the top issues driving voters to the polls — was held in a modest Hilton Garden Inn in Troy, across the river from the state capital of Albany.

The New York Health Plan Association (NYHPA), the biggest trade association for private health insurance companies in the state, came together with the “Realities of Single Payer” coalition — a group “united in opposition to legislation to create a single-payer health care system in New York” — with the results of the election on the agenda.

Other single-payer opponents at the conference included Matt Eyles, CEO of America’s Health Plans, the national lobby group for the insurance industry, and the American Enterprise Institute, the Washington, D.C.-based, right-wing think tank.

Single-payer activists rally outside a health insurance industry conference
Single-payer activists rally outside a health insurance industry conference (ACT UP New York | Facebook)

Realities of Single Payer formed in June of this year in response to the growing support and movement around Medicare for All nationally and the New York Health Act on the state level.

If passed, the New York Health Act would eliminate premiums, co-pays and deductibles, and provide universal treatment covering all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration or citizenship status, for medical, prescription, vision, dental, mental health and reproductive care. The system would be funded through a progressive payroll tax, with employers paying for at least 80 percent.

Realities of Single Payer is led by the NYHPA and the Business Council of New York State. It includes 17 other business organizations and groups like police and firefighters’ unions and the New York State Building and Construction Trades Council.

In response, activists, socialists, nurses and other medical professionals from Physicians for a National Health Program, ACT UP New York, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), New York State Nurses Association and the International Socialist Organization turned out to protest.

Members of Students for a National Health Program, DSA and ACT UP New York disrupted two panels, refusing to leave until they had told the conference that the presentations were based on lies and misinformation. The protesters chanted “My friends with HIV need cheap antiretrovirals! Health care is a human right! Fight! Fight! Fight!” and “Health insurers, that’s a lie. They don’t care if people die!” before being escorted out.

The conference couldn’t proceed normally after that. Conference participants stopped paying full attention and didn’t know what to expect anymore.

Picketers outside greeted them as they tried to leave, with loud chants of “Health care is a human right! Not just for the rich and white!” and “Hey, hey, what do you say? How many kids have you killed today?” They held a “Honk If You Hate Your Health Insurance” sign that received lots of approval from drivers.


THE ACTIVISTS had rattled and unnerved conference participants, who hadn’t expect a protest. Jill Furillo, executive director of the New York State Nurses Association, spoke afterward to note how important it was that activists haven’t stopped organizing after the midterm elections.

The history of health care organizing in this country has been tied to direct action and mass mobilization, from the New Deal, to the desegregation of health care as a result of the civil rights movement, to ACT UP’s struggle during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Organizers of the various groups that made up this coalition have recognized that we need to gear up for more serious opposition.

Drawing from tactics and history inspired by ACT UP’s mobilization against the epidemic of deaths of LGBTQ people during the HIV/AIDS crisis, this coalition will be focusing on organizing more direct actions to confront the health insurance industry and to take on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s continued resistance to any single-payer legislation making it to his desk.

Faced with the growing popularity of Medicare for All nationally and the pressures put on politicians to campaign on the elimination of profits from health care coverage, the strategy of the “Realities of Single Payer” coalition has been to scare New Yorkers into believing single payer would reduce the quality of care, eliminate Medicare for seniors, burden working-class people with high taxes, and cut reimbursement rates to doctors and hospitals.

Realities of Single Payer also adopts arguments that activists have heard before from when Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act was being debated — including the argument that we don’t need to cover the 5 percent of New Yorkers who are still uninsured and that we can settle for a “public option” which people can opt in to, while retaining a marketplace of private insurers.

Conference panelists discussing health care policy concluded that any further efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act were dead in the water following the midterms, which was good for the industry.

But the big winner in 2018 was Medicaid expansion, an acknowledgement of the sweeping victory of ballot initiatives in Utah, Nebraska and Idaho — all traditionally red states and evidence of the support for expanding coverage for all.

Momentum for single-payer has grown after a RAND Corporation study found that such a system would be viable in New York and would save billions in costs in the long run if the state was granted a federal waiver and was able to tax the rich to pay for it.

After five decades of a Republican-controlled state Senate, the midterm elections unseated several incumbents, both Democrat and Republican, including Democrats committed to caucusing with Republicans. The number of Democrats to be sworn in to office is 40, with just 23 Republicans left.

Conference panelists took stock of the new political terrain at the NYHPA conference. In particular, they mentioned the loss of Kemp Hannon, a darling of insurance companies, and former chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Health.

Panelists concluded that it was unfortunate New Yorkers had elected people who had “no knowledge of health care” — and this meant the industry had do more “political education” to bring senators around to defeating single payer.

But the Realities of Single Payer coalition isn’t just planning to sway legislators. Its goal is to sow enough confusion and doubt that it can declare that there is no popular mandate for single-payer, either in New York or nationally.

In October, in a blatant effort at divide-and-conquer, Realities for Single Payer targeted the Black community by organizing an event against single-payer with the National Action Network in Syracuse. There are rumors that African American hospital executives are being mobilized to lobby against single-payer in New York City.

More of these tactics will be used in the next few months and must be challenged.

Our side must do our own political education in the next year: the kind that draws together communities of color, unions, reproductive health care advocates and other working-class New Yorkers to make the New York Health Act a reality. The kind of education that involves more teach-ins, more protests, more solidarity — and more disruption of business as usual.

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