On May 5, eight health care advocates, including myself and two other physicians, stood up to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the Senate Finance Committee during a “public roundtable discussion.” We posed a simple question: Will you allow an advocate for a single-payer national health plan to have a seat at the table?
The answer was a loud, “Get more police!” And we were arrested and hauled off to jail.
The fact that a national health insurance program is supported by the majority of the public, doctors and nurses apparently means nothing to Sen. Baucus. The fact that thousands of people in America are dying every year because they can’t get health care means nothing. The fact that over one million Americans go into bankruptcy every year due to medical debt – even though most of them had insurance when they got sick – means nothing.
And so, as the May 5 meeting approached, we prepared for another one of the highly scripted, well-protected events that are supposed to make up the “health care debate” using standard tools of advocacy. We organized call-in days and faxes to the members of the committee requesting the presence of one single-payer advocate at the table of 15. Despite thousands of calls and faxes, the only reply – received on the day before the event – was, “Sorry, but no more invitations will be issued.”
We knew that this couldn’t be correct. We had heard Sen. Baucus say on that very same day that “all options were on the table.” And so, the next day, we donned our suits and traveled to Washington. We had many knowledgeable single-payer advocates in our group. And as the meeting started, one of us, Mr. Russell Mokhiber, stood up to say that we were here and we were ready to take a seat. And he was promptly removed from the room.
In that moment, it all became so clear. We could write letters, phone staffers, and fax until the machines fell apart, but we would never get our seat at the table.
The senators understand that most people want a national health system and that an improved Medicare for All would include everybody and provide better health care at a lower cost. These facts mean nothing to most of them because they respond to only one standard tool of advocacy: money, and lots of it.
The people seated at the table represented the corporate interests: private health insurers and big business and those who support their agenda and who pay huge sums of money to political campaigns. These interests profit greatly from the current health care industry and do not want changes that will hurt their large, personal pocketbooks.
And so, we have entered a new phase in the movement for health care as a human right: acts of civil disobedience. It is time to challenge directly corporate interests. Our voices must be strong enough to drown out the influence of corporate dollars.
Dr. Margaret Flowers is a pediatrician in Baltimore and co-chair of the Maryland chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP).