The Story of Change: the Media, Obamacare and the Movement for Health Care as a Human Right

Health reform advocates have been starkly divided for the last few years, yet this is about to change: progressive critics of the federal health reform effort are joined by Obamacare supporters disillusioned by the Affordable Care Act’s rocky start and less than rosy prospects. Both camps are looking to options beyond Obamacare, taking into account the health policy terrain created by the ACA. This new perspective would have likely remained academic, however, had the critique of the ACA not been accompanied by people’s actions on the ground, creating real alternatives to market-based health care. While professional advocates and experts focused on debating the ACA, grassroots organizing for publicly financed universal health care made some big strides forward, albeit under the mainstream media’s radar.

As the disillusionment about Obamacare is growing, media pundits are discovering real life alternatives to the ACA, exemplified particularly by Vermont, which in 2011 became the first state to pass a law for a universal, publicly financed health care system. Michael Moore, in the New York Times, stipulates that Vermont’s universal health care system could “change everything.” The Nation turns to a member of Congress to explain how states can become laboratories for publicly financed health care. And an MSNBC discussion of Obamacare turns into an examination of what a human right to health care would look like in the U.S.  Even Fox News examines the “ambitious health care experiment” in Vermont and its prospects for kickstarting a national, publicly financed health system.

As the public debate looks beyond Obamacare, fundamental questions are reemerging: what type of system can truly improve health access and outcomes, and how do we get there? Awaking to the transition process underway in Vermont, media pundits are attempting to dissect the policy implications of removing health care from the private market, channeling funds through a single public channel and setting global price controls. While their understanding of the Vermont example is not always accurate, the menu of policy solutions is relatively straightforward – unsurprisingly, since most countries already operate some variant of a public universal system. It is the question of how to get there that baffles the pundits and draws tired old responses. The Atlantic simply states that Vermont’s breakthrough was “the culmination of decades of work by progressive politicians,” begging the question why progressive politicians – and plenty of single-payer advocates – have been unsuccessful elsewhere. The magazine points to “political realities” that constrained the federal reform debate and made a discussion of publicly financed health care “politically impossible.”

This illustrates how, despite the new focus, the public debate is not any closer to grasping how we can alter political realities and make change possible. So why not tell the real story about how the breakthrough in Vermont was achieved, along with the stories of people all over the country rising up for their human rights, including their right to health care? Vermont demonstrates that it takes a people’s movement, built gradually through one-on-one organizing, to change what’s politically possible, and Healthcare Is a Human Right movements in other states are following suit.

Yet the mainstream media bubble continues to attribute emerging radical alternatives to politicians and individual advocates. It is no coincidence that at a time when it would be helpful to reflect on how the civil rights movement managed to change political realities, Martin Luther King Day commemorations remain centered on Dr. King himself, disconnected from the organizations, networks and broader movement of which he was a part.  As long as we’re looking for a hero to achieve the impossible, we’re bound to remain stuck in our present reality. Real change requires a whole lot more from all of us.