As Senator Bernie Sanders introduces a bill for universal, publicly financed health care on Wednesday, he has growing political momentum behind him. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are cosponsoring the bill, and even former Senator Max Baucus – who shut down consideration of single payer during the drafting of the Affordable Care Act – is now saying that universal health care is “going to happen.”
These statements among leading Democratic Senators mark a potentially momentous shifting of the political winds, but most media coverage of the Senators’ statements is misplaced: It ignores the powerful corporate and ideological forces that have long driven both parties’ opposition to universal health care. It ignores widespread public frustration with both parties and the tectonic social and economic changes transforming American politics. It ignores how people all over the country are organizing to channel popular anger into people’s movements that are independent of both political parties. And it ignores how these movements are beginning to completely upend the politics of health care.
Across the United States, communities are organizing for universal health care. One of the most innovative and dynamic campaigns is led by Put People First! Pennsylvania (PPF-PA), a grassroots, member-led organization focused on building power among poor and working-class people across their state. (I work with PPF-PA through my work at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.)
This summer, PPF-PA has been turning people out to testify at town hall meetings on insurance companies’ requests to raise premiums and deductibles on Affordable Care Act marketplace plans next year. The town halls have been hosted around the state by the Pennsylvania Insurance Department at the request of PPF-PA.
In a country where nearly 30 million people are uninsured, 60 million underinsured, and countless residents die every year from inadequate health care access, PPF-PA’s focus on insurance rates for 5 percent of the population may seem, at first blush, to be missing the point. But challenging insurance companies’ profiteering cuts to the heart of what ails the U.S. health care system.
There has long been an unstated political consensus between the Republican and Democratic Parties that it is okay to deny millions of people health care and okay for some people to have quality care while others have substandard care. Whether these inequities are justified as a matter of personal responsibility, or an unfortunate reality of the world, both parties have always treated health care as a commodity rather than as a human right. PPF-PA is working to crack that consensus and cleave it wide open.
“The insurance industry’s profit motives are incompatible with our human right to health care,” explains Vespera Barrow, a PPF-PA member from Pittsburgh. “You can’t reform and advocate away those kinds of deep structural problems. We need to stop focusing on insurance coverage and start focusing on human beings. This is about people’s lives. This is about our health, our dignity and our survival.”
By using the town hall meetings to focus attention on insurance companies, PPF-PA is highlighting the contradictions at the heart of the private insurance system.
“What purpose do insurance companies serve in our lives?” asks Farrah Samuels, a Philadelphia PPF-PA member and cancer survivor who has repeatedly struggled with her insurance company to cover her care. “Insurance companies exist to make profits, plain and simple. That profit motive leads them to limit where we can go to the doctor, charge us more money every year, and refuse to cover our bills when we need care. We need a health care system that makes sure that everyone who needs care can get it.”
For PPF-PA, this year’s town halls are a strategic step toward that long-term vision.
“Our goal,” explains Danelle Morrow, a PPF-PA member in Johnstown, “is to create a universal, publicly financed health care system that guarantees health care as human right to everyone in Pennsylvania. But we know it’s going to take a mass movement to bring that about.”
By organizing people around the state to turn out for the town halls, PPF-PA is drawing attention to the failures of the private insurance system and developing a statewide base of leaders who can bring the political pressure that is needed to effect change.
Nijmie Dzurinko, a PPF-PA co-founder in Philadelphia, stresses the importance of building a new political force – one grounded in the political leadership of the communities that have the greatest stake in transforming the health care system.
“Universal health care would benefit everyone,” she says, “and it’s a policy that a majority of the public already supports. But winning universal health care isn’t about polling. It’s about power. The health insurance industry is tremendously wealthy, and they know how to use their money and weight to keep elected officials, media outlets and other institutions under their thumb. The only way to win the health care system we need is if the people who have the greatest stake in transforming the system come together to demand it.”
Building an inclusive, ground-up movement that centers the leadership of poor people, people of color, immigrants and other communities whose health care needs aren’t met today is critical.
As Greg Fritz, a PPF-PA member in Lancaster explains, “The only way we’re going to come up with a health care system that works for everyone – that literally leaves not one person out – is if we follow the leadership of everyday people who know firsthand what’s not working and what needs to change.”
To be sure, grassroots organizing in communities that are disenchanted with politics, divided by lines of race and class, and struggling to meet everyday needs, is no easy task.
“Poor communities in this country are really divided by race and geography,” says Eliel Acosta of Adams County. “But at the end of the day, a Black family in Southwest Philadelphia, a Latino family in Gettysburg and a White family in Johnstown are all struggling with a lot of the same things. We’re all written off and ignored, but in our common struggles there’s incredible political potential.”
The future of health care depends less on Bernie Sanders than it does on our ability to overcome these divisions to take collective action. Our movements are making great headway, but we must continue the long, hard work of organizing to create the conditions that force Congress to create a public insurance system that guarantees health care for all.
As Julia Willis, a PPF-PA member in Pittsburgh, recognizes, the door is open to us, but we need to be strategic and ready to put in hard work.
“I have no illusions that these hearings are going to end the health care crisis,” she says. “But organizing around the hearings draws attention to insurance companies’ profiteering and is a step toward building the power we’ll need to win universal health care that guarantees care to every single person in Pennsylvania and the country.”