Do or Die in Albany: A Day Advocating for Statewide Healthcare
BY DONATHAN SALKALN (Reprinted from Chelsea Now / Villager)
How bad has our health care system become? A 25-year-old man is sideswiped by a truck on a busy Downtown street. The ambulance brings him to an East Side emergency room. “Broken leg, shattered bone sticking out of skin,” recalled Dr. Danny Lugassy. “He’s pulling out IVs, and pushing away nurses. I ask him, ‘What are you doing?’ He begs me, ‘Please do the bare minimum possible. I just started a job, but my health care won’t start until next month!’ ”
On June 5, two buses loaded with advocates of single-payer healthcare, mostly from Chelsea, Hells Kitchen, and Greenwich Village, left W. 33rd St. near Penn Station and headed to the state capitol to rally and lobby with others for single-payer healthcare. The event was organized by the Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) in tandem with the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), 1199 SEIU, and over 100 labor and community organizations in the Campaign for New York Health. The day included pre-arranged individual office meetings with state senators, to voice healthcare concerns.
The day’s battle cry was for passage of the New York Health Act, a bill sponsored by local NYS Assemblymember Richard Gottfried (A04738A) and NYS Senator Gustuvo Rivera (S04840-A). It would provide health care for every NYS resident with no deductibles, no co-payments, and no financial burden to receive service. Gottfried’s bill has passed three times in the Assembly, but it as yet to come to the Senate floor. The plan resembles the Medicare federal program for the elderly, which was first pushed in 1912 by President Theodore Roosevelt, and later by Presidents Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, and finally enacted by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.
Between a long bus trip, a rain-soaked rally that faced a looming NYS Capitol Building looking like the dark side of a Harry Potter set, and an intense afternoon meeting in the office of a Republican state senator —too many frightful narratives ruled my day:
—Bill Meier, a bike messenger who lived on 28th St, east of Seventh Ave., becomes lethargic and pale over a period of weeks. Having no insurance, he neglects to go for an examination, thinking the ailment would just go away. By the time he passes out and is brought to the hospital, he dies from an internal infection. Said Austin Horse, his longtime friend and fellow bike messenger, “All he needed were a few pills and he’d be still be alive.”
—A woman who is being treated for a massive heart attack at Bellevue Hospital’s emergency room interrupts medical procedures demanding that the doctor retrieve her phone and insurance card. While her EKG monitor was indicating emanate death, the woman needs to find out if the cardiologist was in her health care network, saying, “I can’t afford a heart attack right now!”
—Tom Thomas, of Hell’s Kitchen, is sideswiped by a speeding motorcycle. He is thrown 25 feet, breaking bones from his right shoulder to his right toe. “I’m grateful for modern medicine to be alive,” he told me, “but what followed were multiple bills of seven figures. After the first bill my insurance coverage ran out and I was forced into bankruptcy. This, after thirty years of being a respectable professional.” Thomas became an activist after learning he was not alone: 64 percent of all US personal bankruptcies are due to medical issues.
—“It’s a demoralizing time to be working in primary care. Too often we tell patients, ‘You don’t have coverage. You can only take your medication for nine months out of the year because the co-pay card from the drug manufacturer is going to run out,’ ” said Dr. Andrew Goodman, Associate Director of Medicine, Callen-Lorde Community Health Center (356 W. 18th St.). The clinic is struggling with the amount of time and dollars diverted from actual care. Also, a third of the Callen-Lorde patients (6,000 a year), are uninsured, as no one is turned away. “We spend thousands of hours fighting insurance claim denials. It’s such a huge waste,” added Issac Evans-Frantz, MPA.
The midday rally in the park not only brought rain showers, but also an outpouring for better heath care. Exclaimed Gottfried, “No New Yorker should have to go without health care and no New Yorker should have to suffer financial hardship in order to get it! It becomes complicated if you’re focusing on taking care of health insurance companies and their finances, and not taking care of New Yorkers.”
“When we talk about health care for all, we’re talking about life and death.” shouted Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez RN, President, NYSNA. “How many times do we see people break their pills in half and they go get a stroke! And maybe they die!” Added fellow NYSNA board member, Anne Bové, “Reports are saying that one in three New Yorkers can’t get health care that they need because they can’t afford the co-pays, the deductibles, or the insurance. The for-profit insurance game has got to come to an end!”
The afternoon included over 80 meetings between healthcare advocates and the aides of state senators, as the electeds were on floor — earlier in the day Republicans had blocked two reproductive bills. All meetings were thankfully in the warmth of the Legislative Office Building, although my assigned group went to Republican State Senator Martin Golden’s office, an opponent of single payer, and some moments were downright frigid. Senator Golden, a former NYC police officer, represents the shoreline communities that sweep the Brooklyn side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Golden is a strong advocate for our men in blue and elders in grey. As Chair of the Senate Aging Committee he is credited with many bills in reforming assisted living, prescription drugs, and long-term care.
Senator Golden’s aides were well versed with the single-payer bill. We learned that Golden is not against universal healthcare, but had issues with the bill being pushed. He feels it would cost considerably more to taxpayers, not less, and that it is a federal issue, not state (like Medicare). An aide wondered why the bill isn’t backed by Governor Cuomo, and also cited numbers in studies that contradicted the studies our group had brought. His office is also very concerned about the predicted 29 percent rise of health insurance rates that will further strain the budgets of families and municipalities across the country.
After a strategy meeting at State Senator Brad Hoylman’s office (already a co-signer), our group headed home. During the trip, our bus captain, Jeff Mikkelson (from Chelsea), told me of his campaign to get New York Health Act resolution adopted by the NY City Council. His group has been working with Councilman Mark Levine, Chair of the Health Committee, and also City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. But that’s a story for another day.
Everyone made it back to the city safe and sound. As Sheridan-Gonzalez yelled at the rally, “I hope nobody gets sick from all this rain!”
Anyone can join the Physicians for a National Health Program — NY Metro Chapter (pnhpnymetro.org). Most meetings take place at 10 Union Square East. To join the Campaign for New York Health, visit nyhcampaign.org.