Organizers strategize about fight for National Health Insurance
Mark Piotrowski
May/June 2004

Washington, D.C.--Over 100 organizers from over a dozen states-from California to Florida, Maine to Mississippi-gathered on April 16-17 at Howard University Hospital to tackle what Dr. Quentin Young described as the "#1 social justice issue in the United States": winning a system of national health insurance for all U.S. residents. The conference was co-sponsored by Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), the Labor Party, the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), the Gray Panthers, the National Coalition for the Homeless and the American Medical Students Association (AMSA).

The goal of bringing together trade unionists, community activists, students, doctors, nurses and other health professionals was to kick-off a 50 state campaign for passage of national health insurance legislation (H.R. 676) and to coordinate grassroots campaigns to win universal health care at the state level.

Dr. Young, PNHP co-founder and past president, led off the conference by making the case for national health insurance. He reminded the attendees that despite spending nearly twice as much per person for health care than any other country on Earth, the United States is still the only industrialized county without a system of universal health care. In 2001, for example, the U.S. spent $4,887 per person on health care, while Canada spent $2,580. In Canada both men and women have longer life expectancy rates.

Why such the big gap? Dr. Young pointed out that drug companies, insurance companies and HMOs waste millions of dollars a year in the United States on mounds of paperwork, denying care, advertising, huge CEO salaries and political lobbying. Money that in other countries goes to patient care.

One of the more destructive results of the millions spent by insurance and drug companies on massive lobbying efforts was the recently passed Medicare bill, which Dr. Young said represents a nearly billion dollar hand-off to the HMOs and Pharmaceutical industry. In fact, the bill prohibits negotiating lower drug prices or importing cheaper prescriptions from Canada. Though as Dr. Young and Dr. Ida Hellander suggested in a recent letter to the Chicago Tribune, "We don't need to import drugs from Canada; we need to import Canadian drug prices".

Young ended and introduced Representative John Conyers by leading the crowd in his oft-repeated chant of "Everybody in, nobody out".

HR 676 - Medicare for All
The main focus of the conference was rallying national support for H.R. 676, "The United States National Health Insurance Act". U.S. Rep. John Conyers, the author of the bill, and his staff talked with organizers about the features of the bill and what it's going to take to get it passed.

HR 676 establishes a publicly financed, privately delivered, single payer health care system that expands the current Medicare program to all U.S. residents. ("Single payer" refers to the system where these monies would be collected into and care paid for out of a single, publicly administered fund.) By eliminating the huge administrative costs of private insurance companies and HMOs - up to 30% in many cases, compared to 2% for Medicare - and redirecting those millions of dollars to direct patient care we'll be able to provide expanded health care for everyone.

In fact, as several speakers pointed out, we're already paying enough to cover everyone for all our medical needs. By cutting out the insurance company middlemen, HR 676 would guarantee, by law, that all Americans would receive all the health care they need regardless of employment, income or health care status.

The legislation would prohibit co-pays or deductibles and would cover all medically necessary services, including many not covered under current private insurance plans:

Unlike most current private insurance plans, patients would have complete choice of doctors, hospitals and other health care providers.

The United States National Health Insurance Act, which was introduced by Conyers (D-MI), Jim McDermott (D-WA), Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Donna Christensen (D-VI), currently has 31 co-sponsors, including Alcee Hastings (D-FL). There are no Senate co-sponsors yet. One of the goals of the conference was for organizers to go back to their communities and demand that their congress people sign onto HR 676.

The labor movement & the push for health care for all
During his keynote address, Dr. Young pointed out that every other industrialized country in the world has a universal health care system that guarantees coverage for all residents. In these other countries universal health care was won behind the leadership of the labor movement in most cases, Young explained. He pointed out that the U.S. labor movement is taking a bigger role in leading the fight for national health insurance. United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger recently said that the health care issue is getting "too big for any one industry to fight" and that the only solution was universal health care.

United Steelworkers President Leo Gerrard, during his presentation at the conference, touched on his union's support for national health care by suggesting that "the problem is not that we can't afford [our current health care] system, it's that we can't afford to keep it." The Steelworkers represent workers in both the U.S. and Canada and Gerrard used their experiences to give a blistering critique of the U.S. health care system, with it's bloated costs, while debunking the myths created and pushed by the insurance companies about the Canadian Health Care system, where everyone is treated equal. He explained the reality behind the oft-repeated notion that thousands of Canadians come to America to get health care thusly: "Let me tell you about who comes across the border to the U.S. [to get health care]. It's rich folks who don't like being treated like normal folks."

The Labor Party's Just Health Care campaign ( has been endorsed by voters in a half-dozen community ballot referenda, including 51,000 "YES" votes right here in Alachua County in November 2000 (64.5%). In addition to the Labor Party, Steelworkers, UE and UAW, there were representatives at the conference from IATSE (Theatrical & Stage Employees), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Kentucky Nurses Professional Organization, the National Education Association (NEA), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Jobs with Justice, and the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW).

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