Twelve strangers — a cross-section of ages, races, professions and tax brackets — assembled Monday of last week in the lobby of the Westwood office building where Dianne Feinstein has her L.A. headquarters. We were there to share our personal stories with the senator’s District Director, Trevor J. Daley, and to express our fervent desire for a robust public health care option.
The ubiquity of our national health care crisis exhibited itself right there in the lobby. Manny, the security guard in the senator’s office building, asked me why our diverse group had gathered. When I told him it was for health care, he volunteered that his own sister had had to wait 14 hours in an E.R. with a dislocated knee because she lacked insurance.
In my arms, I brandished several hundred signed letters asking for health care reform, some containing harrowing health care stories like Manny’s. A group of former Obama campaign volunteers, Congressional District 33 North for Change (headed by Lyn Goldfarb and Carol Newton of Los Feliz), tables every Sunday at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market on Ivar and Selma. Weekend after weekend, concerned citizens line up shoulder-to-shoulder to sign letters to local representatives, as well as Senators Boxer and Feinstein, demanding universal health care. The day before my trip to the latter’s office, we collected 777 letters.
I hereby formally invite CNN and MSNBC, along with any other news outlet, to meet us at the farmer’s market and see where the real health care grassroots movement happens. Why have apoplectic anti-health-care “activists” (some paid by insurance lobbyists) received so much airtime for acting badly? A couple of weeks ago, at Rep. Adam Schiff’s town hall, Venice for Change activist Marta Evry was head butted by a right-wing protester. Across this country, equally passionate citizens follow democratic protocol in asking for health care and receive no attention. I also invite the press to join us at any of the upcoming town halls in LA – Rep. Diane Watson on Thursday, Rep. Judy Chu on Saturday and many more to come. Over and over again, CD33 North for Change and other groups brave the ire of anti-reform activists, as they did at Schiff’s town hall:
We are the majority, those of us demanding reform. However, we don’t grab the same level of publicity as the right — unless Howard Dean attends an event — because we agitate rationally. Perhaps it’s time for us to get a tad more theatrical, while remaining respectful. I had the idea — and please feel free to use it if you like it — that we attend town halls dressed up in bandages, leaning on crutches, wearing neck braces, symbolizing America’s disenfranchised sick and wounded. I am trying to figure out how to make a suit out of insulin syringes, accompanied by a sign that reads, “Don’t let the health insurance companies stick it to us anymore!” Judi Laing of Obamawood — a group I helped to found in ’07 which collaborates with CD33 North for Change — thought of everyone wearing hospital gowns to town halls (probably easier than the syringe suit).
We have the right-wing fringe to thank for adding fuel to our fire. For one, I found nothing more incendiary than those hideous Obama-as-Joker flyers posted on streetlamps and telephone poles in my neighborhood. Then a few days later, much to my chagrin, our fellow progressive of all people, Kathleen Sebelius, galvanized still further legions to our cause by laughably suggesting that a public option was a mere “sliver” of the health care reform necessary to make this country livable for millions of uninsured Americans.
The 12 Southern Californians gathering last Monday in Feinstein’s lobby beg to differ.
One older woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, worked three jobs as a single mom raising three kids — one of those jobs was just to pay for health care for the family. Sometimes she’d had to choose between health insurance payments and food for her kids or herself. Now grown, one of her daughters suffers from untimely cancer and is unable to afford all of her treatments, the stress of which is accelerating the spread of the disease.
Chris Robson of Long Beach, our ringleader — a youthful 64-year-old former executive, recently the casualty of health care industry lay-offs — has suffered a severe decline in income, while incurring a drastic increase in health care costs, forcing him to dip into his retirement savings to pay for immediate needs. Meanwhile, he just discovered that Medicare doesn’t cover dental costs, which thus far have become his biggest health expense. Meanwhile, his ex-wife is unable to work due to a terrible accident. Without a job and its requisite health insurance, she’s shopping around for a new policy to no avail, due to the pre-existing condition of having been hit by a car!
Jackie Potts, a beautiful, red-headed journalist from Hollywood, had to quit her job, with its health care benefits, to nurse her mother who was dying of cancer. Now, Jackie lives not only without her mother but without health care, continually receiving notification that she’s uninsurable due to being “underweight.” I met her — Jackie is slender, in a healthy, attractive way. And what if she were underweight — wouldn’t she therefore need health care all the more? With a history of cancer in her family, she understandably wants the best medical attention money can buy, but has none at all.
Cyndy Fowler, a small business owner from Long Beach, had to lay off three of her employees because she could no longer afford to insure all of them. She spoke eloquently to the fact that the current health care system in this country stifles the very entrepreneurial spirit that supposedly characterizes our nation, by preventing small business owners from expanding, due to the prohibitive cost of purchasing insurance for employees.
David Hennage, another of our contingent, who has worked on all sides of health care — for unions, advocacy groups, and health centers — praises the work done by the Remote Area Medical (RAM) volunteers who offered free health care last week to teeming throngs of uninsured Angelenos. However, he adds that:
[I]t really did not address the issue of providing ongoing health care to those who fall through the cracks of the current support system or to the uninsured in general. I believe that only real health care reform, including a single payer or at least the public option guaranteed by the Federal Government can do this.
I agree with David that a public option, at the very least, is the only way to proceed. Co-ops and non-profits, for all their best intentions, cannot compete with major corporations, bringing down costs and expanding coverage, the way the federal government can.
To his credit, Senator Feinstein’s District Director Trevor Daley listened attentively to every one’s health care story and responded with empathy, understanding and good humor. He suggested that activist groups like CD33 North for Change will most effectively grab the attention of our elected officials with personal stories, rather than just signatures, on our letters.
In a sadly apropos turn of events, I discovered a couple of days after our delegation to Feinstein’s office that my 95-year-old grandfather’s health is seriously declining. He has reached the “donut hole” in Medicare drug coverage, meaning that he’s passed his fixed spending limit on drugs and now faces exponential cost increases for his prescriptions each month. Since I was a little girl, I’ve called my grandpa “Big Bear” because he is my hero, a man who served 20 years in the FDNY, fighting the fire in the Empire State Building caused by a plane crash in 1944. It breaks my heart to see our system fail my Big Bear at the end of his life of service. In the richest country in the world, our weakest citizens are falling by the wayside. At a time when morality continually emerges as a hot-button issue, this moral failure requires our urgent attention and action.
Although health care nightmare stories abound across the United States, we don’t have to focus simply on the negative. Why not cultivate a positive vision for the kind of health care we deserve as a nation? Here are a few slogan ideas: how about Health Care Reform? Yes We Can! Or Campaign for a Healthy America. Or The Greatest Country in the World Deserves to be #1`in Health Care (rather than #37). Or Our Moon Landing: Health Care for All. Or Just Because We’re the Last Industrialized Country to Get National Health Care Doesn’t Mean We Can’t Be the Best. I’m only partly joking.
Cyndy Fowler very viably recommended we say, Medicare for All, since many Americans know that Medicare is a federally run health care program that operates with extraordinary efficiency — and will be even better if we add dental and better drug coverage.
However we label it, we must find a way to inspire those now more afraid of “the heaven they don’t know than the devil they know,” as Salon.com Editor-in-Chief Joan Walsh recently said on MSNBC’s The Ed Show. Our challenge is to show our fellow Americans that we share common values, such as entrepreneurship, choice, fairness, debt reduction — both nationally and individually, and good health. Yes we can.
Lucia Brawley is an actress and activist, based in Hollywood, California.