NE health summit: Hundreds demand reform

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BURLINGTON, Vt. — Two different groups of people gathered here March 17 to talk about solving the health care crisis. Inside the Davis Center at the University of Vermont were some 400 people invited to the White House Northeast Regional Forum on Health Reform, hosted by Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Republican Gov. Jim Douglas of Vermont.

Outside, under a bright and unseasonably warm sky, 200-300 people from the five-state region gathered to tell the forum attendees that they refused to be the marginalized majority, that they were demanding that the forum address HR 676, the Medicare for All bill, to fundamentally reform health care in America.

The protest was called by single-payer advocates, the Vermont AFL-CIO, nurses unions in the region, the United Electrical Workers (UE) and the Vermont Workers’ Center, when it became obvious that only a token number of single-payer advocates were to be invited to the forum. Most invitees were “stakeholders” not advocates, with a few people representing patients who had been mistreated or let down by the current system.

Gov. Patrick did facilitate his part of the meeting to encourage a dialogue between those who wanted real reform and those who represented the status quo, but both governors made it clear that the summit’s mandate was to find ways to reform the present system without changing it in any fundamental way.

Outside, the demonstrators, carrying signs saying “Pass HR 676,” “Medicare for All,” “Single Payer Now” and “Health Care is a Human Right,” rejected that approach. Welcoming President Obama’s insistence on providing health care for all and reforming the cost structure of the system, Dr. Deb Richter, leader of the single-payer forces in Vermont, told the crowd, “The president is with us, but he is on a large ocean in a very leaky boat surrounded by sharks. We cannot expect him to jump in the water on his own. He needs our help.”

Alluding to the financial crisis, she said, “We cannot continue to bail out the insurance companies or continue with this insurance industry in the middle of health care doing nothing but draining resources away from keeping people healthy and taking care of the sick.”

Jen Henry, president of the AFT Nurses union at Vermont’s major hospital, told of one of her patients who died for lack of health insurance. “Health care,” she said, “is a human right and the right time is now!”

Drawing attention to the fight for single-payer in Vermont, Dawn Stanger, UPS driver and representative of the Vermont Workers’ Center, a labor and community solidarity organization, told the group, “We are only asking for the kind of change that is politically possible here in Vermont, and change to a single-payer system is possible now.”

The rally concluded with Dr. Marvin Malek, from Barre, Vt., who described our health care system as suffering from a triad of dysfunction: 1) terrible access, with millions not covered; 2) terrible outcomes, with the worst life span, rates of chronic illness, disability and birth defects of any developed country; and 3) the most expensive system in the world.

The main speakers from the rally were invited at the last minute to participate in the forum. Thus there actually was a dialogue between the two groups. The president’s representative promised to relay to Washington the different views expressed in Burlington, both inside and outside the meeting’s walls.