“We don’t deserve to die simply because we don’t have healthcare.” – Doreen Hicks, Baltimorean, low-wage stadium worker, and an organizing member of United Workers
On Saturday, December 15, 2-5 pm, Marylanders from throughout the state will gather at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia to launch our statewide campaign, Healthcare is a Human Right – Maryland. Building on our shared history of working towards single payer healthcare and protecting our human rights in Maryland and inspired by a successful effort in Vermont, this new campaign will focus on growing the grassroots support necessary to ensure that our basic human right to health is protected in Maryland through the establishment of a publicly-funded, universal single-payer healthcare system. But beyond fighting for our access to healthcare, this campaign aims to help develop statewide community leadership for the broader struggle for the social, economic, and environmental justice necessary for a healthy life and a healthy community.
Over the past three months, new leaders have emerged in seven Maryland counties, from high schoolers, retirees and community organizers to low-wage workers, faith leaders, occupiers, doctors, and nurse practitioners. They have been conducting surveys and facilitating conversations about their healthcare experiences and their support for a publicly-funded universal, healthcare system for all Marylanders. In that time, over 400 surveys have been completed in locations ranging from Taneytown and Westminster in Carroll County to Baltimore City and Calvert County. There have been community conversations in libraries, coffee shops, and faith buildings. Thus far, the public response has been overwhelming and new chapters are forming rapidly.
In what cannot be considered breaking news, the overwhelming majority of people surveyed so far agree that healthcare is a human right and that this right is not being met within our current tiered for-profit health system. In fact, two decades of independent polls in the United States show that supermajorities of people support a universal publicly-financed single payer system and are even willing to pay higher taxes for it, though 95% of us would actually be paying less than we are currently paying for healthcare.
In addition, and all too sadly, we have been hearing the stories of hundreds of our neighbors from throughout the state who have shared the irrational inequalities, frustrations, and downright tragedies so many of them and their loved ones have had to endure. Such as a hard working immigrant mother who has two kids, with only one qualifying for medical insurance while the other is denied coverage resulting in unnecessary health complications and financial burdens. Or the parent in Prince Frederick who as a result of illness and medical bills lost her home and now lives with her two children out of their car, despite being insured, to those who still deal with debt collectors for the medical bills of deceased loved ones, it is clear that our system is creating grossly unjust situations for families and communities throughout Maryland.
It is also clear that most of the folks we talk to know that we are still a long way from accountable and equitable health reform. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), once in full effect, is expected to only cover half of the 800,000 Marylanders who are currently uninsured and will lead to a higher number of people with inadequate coverage. The cost of health insurance will continue to increase because there are no proven cost controls in the ACA. This is not at all surprising when remembering the ACA was drafted by the insurance lobby itself and facilitated into law by simply buying members of congress.
It is grossly unacceptable that we have yet to adequately address the healthcare crisis in this nation given that we are already spending enough on healthcare, over twice what other industrialized nations spend per person, to provide high quality, comprehensive, lifelong universal care. Healthcare costs in the US are soaring out of control such that the direct burden of healthcare costs on families is expected to be over half of an average Marylander’s income within a decade. Rising healthcare costs are a primary driver of the economic crisis and the number one cause of personal bankruptcy. Evidence clearly shows that the only way to control healthcare costs is through a publicly financed non-profit system and that if our healthcare costs were in line with other nations, we would have no national deficit.
Even more concerning are the human costs of the current healthcare system. It is estimated that over 800 uninsured adult Marylanders die each year due to lack of access to care. Those who are uninsured or inadequately insured face financial barriers that prevent them from receiving necessary tests and treatment. This means that parents with treatable chronic conditions are unable to work and care for their families. And a study conducted at Johns Hopkins found that children who are uninsured are more likely to die during hospitalization than those who are insured. But even those who are insured struggle to navigate the current complicated system that is designed to make patients and caregivers give up rather than persist in order to get the medications and treatments they need.
Our situation is clear. Inequality is worsening. The health gap between the rich and poor in this country only continues to escalate, and in the US is currently at its widest recorded level. The reasons are obvious. Such health inequality further exacerbates income and general inequality as more and more of us are forced into debt (medical debt makes up most bankruptcies in Maryland) and forced into unhealthy, shorter lives since many of us cannot afford preventative care.
Our Healthcare is a Human Right campaign is founded by Physicians for a National Health Program – Maryland (PNHP-MD), United Workers, and Healthcare-Now MD. The inspiration came from the work of our allies in Vermont, namely through the Vermont Workers Center, who in 2008 started a grassroots, human rights-focused campaign for universal healthcare. In 2011, after a long and inspiring fight, Vermonters won, becoming the first state in the country to pass a law for a universal healthcare system that would cover all Vermonters.
But perhaps equally inspiring have been the other effects that have emerged as a result of basing their healthcare campaign on fighting for a government and system that is universal, equitable, accountable, transparent, and participatory. By focusing on these principles, Vermonters have begun to take on other equally important human rights struggles relating to education and budget reform.
Over the past year we have been witnessing, and in many cases participating, in a rise of political consciousness throughout our country. From Wisconsin and Occupy to striking teachers and Wal-Mart workers, to communities fighting to save their rec centers and homes, to students working to stop fracking and the school to prison pipeline, to concerned citizens fighting to stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership, more and more people are becoming intimately aware of the dangerous effects of basing community well-being on the neo-liberal policies of promoting debt and commodifying basic resources. That our healthcare system is an obvious manifestation of this is readily apparent as has been made clear from the discussions Marylanders have been participating in over the past couple of months.
Our job ahead is clear. There are real solutions to the health care crisis that would reduce wealth inequality and alleviate human suffering. However, in order to see those solutions put in place, we must build a strong grassroots base and develop leadership throughout the state that understands our basic human rights, knows when they are being honored or violated and stands up for what we require. Using a human rights framework, we will work to achieve not only healthcare for everyone, but also jobs with living wages, affordable housing, high quality education, and the other basic human needs. There is no reason that we cannot be successful in Maryland, the wealthiest state in the nation. Perhaps the main obstacle keeping us from reaching our goals is not recognizing the strength of an educated and organized population. Fortunately in Maryland, as is happening elsewhere, that is already changing.