Grassroots Movement Leads to Universal Health Care In Vermont

Health care is a human right, not a fringe benefit. That was the message Jonathan Kissam delivered to more than a dozen reform advocates July 18 as part of a session hosted by the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups.

Kissam, a member of the Vermont Workers Center (VWC), spoke for roughly 30 minutes on his state’s grassroots movement which led to the passage of a universal, single-payer health care system. For Kissam, the measure stands in contrast to the federal Affordable Care Act while also challenging the ideas of what is “politically possible.”

The main thrust of VWC’s grassroots movement comes from identifying health care as a human right. When viewed as a human right, health care becomes a unifying concern for everyone, not just for individuals struggling to pay their bills or hold on to their benefits.

“Our vision is grounded in people’s experience. We’ve found that if we put the healthcare debate into the framework of human rights it puts human beings at the center of the debate,” Kissam said. “We believe if we have debates around health care on the level of policy, on the level of dollars and cents, then we lose. What makes us strong is we put human experience at the center of the debate and keep it there.

“Most importantly, we feel the human rights framework connects us to people. It is a values campaign, not a policy campaign,” he continued. “It gives us an alternative set of values to what is very prevalent in the American media, and that is the idea that we are primarily individual consumers in a marketplace.”

The new law, signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin on May 26, […] made Vermont the first state in the country to move toward a universal health care system.

[…] “This is a huge step forward, not just for our state, but for our nation. We hope that this will spread throughout the country, just like Vermont’s other pioneering actions – the abolition of slavery and the establishment of universal public education,” Kissam said.

More than anything else, Kissam believes the Green Mountain Care owes its passage to the Healthcare Is a Human Right (HCHR) campaign, which was spearheaded by the VWC in the late 1990s.

The organization was founded by a group of young, low-wage workers in Vermont and sought to achieve a working-class power through livable wage campaigns, innovative organizing, direct action and union solidarity.

VWC formally launched the HCHR campaign in 2008, guided by the human rights principles of universality, equality, transparency, accountability and participation, rather than legislative policy.

“These are principles that can be applied not just to healthcare, but other areas too. That really has been our vision and our north star as we’ve gone through legislation, which is inevitably less than perfect,” Kissam said.

By shifting the focus [of] the public and political discourse to the collective needs of Vermont’s citizens, the campaign challenged traditional morays. As a result, it advanced VWC’s goals of treating healthcare as a public good, rather than a free market commodity.

[…] “We really wanted to put the healthcare system on trial and project the campaign as being a movement around values,” Kissam said.

The first phase of the campaign had three main components: “human rights surveys,” which allowed members of VWC to engage the citizens of Vermont; health care as a human crisis; and finally, a mass rally at the statehouse in Montpelier.

[…] Reflecting on the nearly decades-long process, Kissam said he believes the successes of VWC’s HCHR campaign stemmed from three components:

• Mass organizing — At every stage of the movement, VWC utilized a mass organizing component.

• Leadership development — Developing leaders who feel comfortable helping working-class people to feel confident enough to engage in politics.

• Vision — Through continued focus on the human rights framework, VWC remained connected to its base values of family and community.

“We want to develop people’s capacity to tell a different story, to not just respond to the dominant story, but to tell a story of people coming together around the vision of healthcare as a human right and ultimately win what we need from our government,” Kissam said. “We’ve given people a vision beyond what is politically possible makes the impossible possible. That is how real change that affects people’s lives happens.”