Grassroots movement promotes health care for all

By Dick Mason, The Observer December 19, 2011 08:52 pm

Oregon may be the next state to pass legislation providing universal health care to all its residents.

That is the belief of civil rights attorney Mary Gerish of Bennington, Vt. Gerish helped lead a grassroots movement in Vermont that resulted in the state’s legislature passing a landmark universal health care law earlier this year.

The law guarantees that everyone in Vermont will receive health care via a single-payer system operated by the state. The drive for the Vermont health care bill was launched in 2008 against long odds.

“We made something possible which everyone said was not possible,’’ Gerish said in La Grande Wednesday night at a forum titled “How We Won Health Care for All.’’

Gerish is part of a group traveling around Oregon telling Vermont’s health care bill story. Gerish is confident that Oregon will successfully follow Vermont’s lead. She senses a groundswell of support among Oregonians for a universal health care bill.

“I think the people of Oregon will be the next to do it (get a universal health care bill passed). I can’t wait to come back for the celebration,’’ Gerish said.

The bill enacted in Vermont requires the state to put in place a law guided by human rights principles. The principles include:

• universality: “If you are human you get it (health care),’’ Gerish said. “Everyone receives it.’’

• equity in access: each person gets what they need when they need it.

The Vermont campaign succeeded in large part because its supporters were able to show that health care is for the benefit of everyone, a human right.

“Health care is a public good like schools and fire departments. We are better off with them,’’ Gerish said.

The sharing of stories also went a long way toward galvanizing support for the legislation. People were encouraged to share stories about their health care experiences with others to illustrate the need for universal coverage. This meant that people, rich and poor with seemingly little in common, would come tighter to share stories about illnesses.

“All of sudden people realize how much they have in common, they didn’t think they had anything in common,’’ Gerish said. “They are united in humanity and suffering.’’

The groundswell of support generated by storytelling and other actions helped build a power base for a campaign legislators had no choice but to respond to.

“The people of Vermont figured out that you can redefine political priorities,’’ Gerish said. “This is how grassroots campaigns work.’’

Supporters wore red shirts stating that health care is a human right during visits to the state capital to heighten their visibility.

“The legislators would say ‘The red shirts are here.’ They knew they would be held accountable,’’ Gerish said.

This helped build support from the ground up.

“This the essence of democracy, the power comes from the people,’’ Gerish said. “The people were telling the government what to do and not vice versa.’’

Gerish elaborated further, stating “This was the finest example of democracy I’ve seen in my lifetime.’’

The funding source for Vermont’s universal health care bill is now being determined. Gerish believes it is likely that it will be financed by a broad-based income tax increase. A tax hike may not be an issue for many since they will no longer be paying health insurance premiums.

“I’m still trying to get my arms around the fact that I will not be paying health insurance premiums,’’ Gerish said. “There will be a savings (in money people spend for health care).’’

The Vermont universal health care legislation is expected to take effect in 2013 or 2014. One reason for the delay is that the state needs to obtain a waiver from the federal health care legislation passed by Congress in 2010.

Vermont’s universal health care legislation was signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin. Supporters were upset that most newspaper photos of the signing ceremony showed only Shumlin and not the crowd of the bill’s supporters around him.

“The governor did not get this passed, the people did,’’ Gerish said.

She said Shumlin did support the bill but believes he signed it because it is likely that a veto by him would have been overridden by the legislature.

Gerish said that Vermont’s universal health care bill has received little national attention, especially on major television networks. She said this is likely because many of their sponsors are drug and insurance companies that oppose universal health care.

Hospitals in Vermont are welcoming the universal health care bill, said Mike Huntington of Corvallis, a retired physician.

He explained that the bill will prevent hospitals from losing money on the many patients who cannot afford treatment who they treat in emergency rooms.

Vermont hospitals also support the universal health care law because it will allow more people to to see doctors about medical issues before a crisis condition develops. This will keep emergency rooms from being flooded with patients.

At least one large company has threatened to leave Vermont because of the health bill. On the other side of the equation, it is believed that a number of companies are interested in moving to Vermont because they will not have to pay for health insurance for their employees.

Huntington and Gerish would like nothing better than to see a system like the one Vermont will have put in place throughout the United States. The need for it is critical, Huntington said. About 40,000 people die in the United States each year, the retired doctor said, because they cannot receive the treatment they need.

“People making $100,000 or more a year may feel they have the best health care in the world. But one third to one half of the people in the United States do not have access to it.’’

The “How We Won Health Care for All’’ forum, conducted at the Center for Human Development, was co-sponsored by Oregon Rural Action, Mad As Hell Doctors, the Oregon Single Payer Campaign and Jobs With Justice.