Katie Robbins thinks the fight for universal healthcare is so important she is willing to put her butt on the line.
As part of the campaign, Robbins and others are donning hospital gowns and shiny plastic buttocks that stick out the back of their gowns. Once dressed, the activists take their message to the public: “Private health insurance is like a hospital gown, chances are your ass is not covered.”
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Robbins and other activists jumped on a subway train on the 1 line. They handed out flyers explaining that healthcare should be a human right and publicly funded insurance for everyone was the best solution to the healthcare crisis. The activists happened upon a Mariachi band, and the combination of outlandish outfits and festive music seemed to inspire subway riders to scoop up the leaflets.
In the past, proponents of single-payer healthcare took a more conventional approach. For 20 years, Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) have used academic journals, traditional media and PowerPoint presentations to spread its message. But things are heating up.
In January, doctors, nurses, students, labor unions, religious organizations and activists launched the Leadership Conference for Guaranteed Health Care. Inspired by the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, which helped pass groundbreaking legislation in the 1960s, the healthcare alliance claims to represent more than 20 million people.
Single-payer healthcare advocates argue that only by having the federal government provide business-and taxpayer-funded health insurance can everyone receive guaranteed healthcare access. This system would also save money by eliminating the health insurance industry’s profits and extensive bureaucracy.
In contrast, the Obama administration and Congress propose new industry regulations, mandates and public subsidies for individuals to purchase private insurance, and perhaps some type of public insurance. These proposals would still leave millions of Americans uninsured while subsidizing for-profit insurers.
To pay for the plans, Democrats, with no shortage of Republican support, are considering $600 billion in cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, a first-ever national sales tax and taxes on employer-based health insurance.
Single-payer healthcare has more support in the public than in the halls of power. Only after single-payer healthcare advocates mobilized a mass call-in campaign and threatened a demonstration of health professionals were they invited to Obama’s healthcare summit in March.
Yet they were excluded from key hearings in the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who raked in more than $1.8 million in healthcare industry donations in the 2008 election cycle.
In May, 13 protesters, including doctors and nurses, were arrested after they disrupted committee hearings by standing up and demanding a seat at the table. Robbins was the third to speak out. She declared, “We want a seat at the table.” In response, Baucus snapped, “We need more police.”
Baucus told one activist at a public event in Washington, D.C., in May that he supports single-payer healthcare but does not push for it because “we don’t have the votes.”
Activists targeted Baucus when he came home on recess after the finance committee hearings. Single-payer healthcare supporters were a visible and vocal presence at town hall meetings across Montana. Baucus canceled personal appearances, sending instead a video and a representative for this “listening tour.” A “buy back our senator” campaign is in the works.
Single-payer healthcare advocates have made modest inroads into legislative hearings. Dr. Margaret Flowers, one of the “Baucus 13,” was invited to testify before a Senate committee. Flowers said, “We are no closer to having more support for singlepayer in the Senate, [but] things are a little better in the House,” Flowers said. She added that one goal is to get the Congressional Budget Office to do a financial analysis of single-payer healthcare this year.
Healthcare industry lobbying groups reported $127 million in lobbying expenditures in the first three months of this year. Five trade associations combined have hired more than 20 former government employees as lobbyists, including ex-congressional staffers. PNHP has five staffers for all operations and an annual budget of less than $1 million.
Some opponents of single-payer healthcare have resorted to artificial grassroots movements known as “Astro Turf.” One Boston consulting firm hired by the insurance industry reportedly faked letters from senior citizens in support of Medicare privatization.
Instead of relying on money and underhanded tactics, Flowers says, “We must build a civil rights movement like those that have come before.”
Laura S. Boylan, M.D., is a practicing neurologist, faculty member at the New York University School of Medicine and board member of Physicians for a National Health Program Metro NY.
Previous Indy coverage of the struggle for healthcare reform: