On Election Day 2005, Seattle’s voters resoundingly approved an advisory measure for an American right to health care, Ballot Measure 1. The vote was 69 percent yes to 31 percent no. It capped a two-year effort by volunteer activists from two small community organizations in Seattle: the Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans (PSARA) and Health Care For All-Washington (HCFA-WA).

We were delighted with the outcome. Some on our side were afraid we might lose. When we got a super-majority, everybody just said, “Awesome!”

Two years earlier, PSARA’s president Will Parry and I were talking one day about what the group’s health care committee, which I chair, might be able to accomplish.

I said I would like to mount a petition campaign asking our City Council to place an item on the city ballot that would give voters the chance to say that “health care is a right.” I told Will that I believed the main element lacking in the health care reform movement was the participation of everyday people. He agreed. We both thought there were lots of great experts advocating for a single-payer insurance system, and good bills being offered in Congress, but little involvement of ordinary people to support these high-level efforts.

A petition for “health care is a right” could bring in lots of people based on something they could easily understand and support. I wanted to avoid asking people to agree with complicated health insurance systems. Once a majority of people in America agree that “health care is a right,” and express it firmly to Congress, the experts’ job will be much easier. Then, we can come up with a thoughtful way of making health care a human right that corresponds to our political reality and our traditions here in the U.S.

A week later, Will phoned and said, “Brian, I think you’re onto something. Let’s run with it and see where it takes us.”

Will Parry is the respected 85-year-old president of PSARA. He is about as experienced a community leader as one is apt to find anywhere. He enjoys extensive ties to labor, religious and community organizations in Seattle. He is not the kind of fellow you want to embrace with empty talk about organizing mass movements.

“Okay, Will,” I said with as much confidence as I could muster, “I’ll be down to the office tomorrow and we can write the language for the petition.”

We knew that the wording we would be asking people to sign on to would determine everything for us. Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. has called for a new Bill of Rights for Americans, including a right to equal high-quality health care. Starting with his language, we wrote the petition wording: “Every person in the United States should have the right to health care of equal high quality. The Congress should immediately enact legislation to implement this right.”

We took the petition to a great variety of public places, including food stores, farmer’s markets, street festivals, Seattle’s Gay Pride parade, political demonstrations and events. The two main supporting organizations sent out copies through their newsletters. We received many completed petitions from folks we mailed to, after they had passed them among family members and in their neighborhoods. Over the two years, we collected 11,500 signatures.

When someone was approached and asked to sign our petition, usually she would take the board and begin to read the wording. Almost invariably, when she came to the word “right,” she would nod her head, take the pen and sign. People responded to the words “right to health care” like it was something they knew in their hearts was good. Often, their eyes would actually light up. “I agree with that,” they would often say. People smiled while they signed, and thanked us for our good work. It was fun.

This is counter to what is portrayed in the media and by many of our national leaders: everybody is supposed to be crazy for free enterprise in America today. But if congressional action is needed to make sure that everybody has a right to quality health care, what does that say about the insurance industry? Maybe it’s not working to the benefit of the great majority of Americans. Maybe we need to use the federal government to fix this problem regardless of what the big insurance companies say. I think that is what 69 percent of Seattle’s voters meant when they voted to send a message to the other Washington for a right to health care.

After this huge ballot victory, it is apparent to us that Americans want to help change the way health care is distributed in the U.S. People want everybody to be covered. We are glad we avoided presenting people with a complex system to support. A “right to health care” is both simple and strong. It gets the message across. We would like to see more cities take up Seattle’s call. Imagine what it would be like in Congress if 30 cities followed our example. Now, that’s something I’d love to see!

Brian King (bpjking@comcast.net) is a retired United Food and Commercial Workers steward in Seattle.

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