SAN FRANCISCO - On the eve of President Obama's first State of the Union address, people in over 130 communities around the country rallied at Congressional offices Jan. 26, pressing the president and Congress to step up to the plate and pass a "strong health care reform bill" quickly. The gatherings were organized by MoveOn.org, Health Care for America Now and other groups, in response to pessimistic predictions that after last week's Republican victory in the Massachusetts Senate election, chances for strong health care legislation had dwindled.
As commuters streamed home from work, over 200 people gathered on Market St., near Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein's downtown San Francisco office, calling on Congressional Democrats to "grow a spine," and "show some skill, pass the bill!"
Asked what a health care reform bill should contain to be meaningful, Oakland resident Harriet Johnson replied, "Some kind of health care for all, for everyone. Like single payer," she added. "Other countries have it."
Johnson said a more equitable tax structure, with corporations shouldering more of the burden, is key to funding health care and other social needs. An AT&T worker, Johnson has health coverage, but said she would also be willing to pay more in taxes so everyone could be covered. "Maybe we all need to pay something," she said, "but everyone should be covered."
Physical therapist Karen Ande works with frail elders in a program largely funded through Medical, the state's Medicaid program. Last spring, she said, Medical eliminated services including adult dental care and podiatry, as part of draconian cuts - mostly to human services - to meet a massive state budget gap.
Ande said she has worked with the Adult Day Health program for half a dozen years, but "it wasn't until this fall that we had three clients with dental abscesses, big swellings in their mouths." One woman, who had been living at home with her family, ended up with an infection in her bone and spent four months in a nursing home, receiving intravenous antibiotics. The experience deepened the woman's confusion, and she was unable to return home.
"So for want of $75 worth of preventive care, this woman is now permanently in a nursing home, funded by Medical," which also paid for her antibiotic therapy, Ande said.
Demonstrators in other cities heard similar stories.
At Senator Kristen Gillibrand's office in New York City, former CNN journalist Veronica De La Cruz told protesters that her brother, Eric, died in July from a heart condition, after he was denied coverage by a number of major insurers because of his pre-existing heart problems.
"I promised my brother that I will make sure nobody will suffer needlessly like he did," De La Cruz said. "I think the public doesn't know what health care reform is. What they do hear is a lot of the misinformation that is floating around out there."
MoveOn spokesperson David Greenson told the rally that many Massachusetts voters who supported Republican candidate Scott Brown felt health care legislation wasn't strong enough.
In Jeffersonville, Ind. - on the Ohio River across from Louisville, Ky. - psychologist Mary Ellen Peacock said many people with serious mental illness can't afford needed medications because they lack health coverage. Laid-off auto worker Phil Karshner said that after 31 years in the industry, "It was a cold wakeup call" to realize he could lose his coverage as he gets older. The federal subsidy that has enabled him to stay covered will end in May, Karshner said, and he and his wife can't afford the $1,800/month it would cost to stay in the health plan.
In his State of the Union speech, President Obama promised he "would not walk away" from the millions of Americans who have lost, or will lose, their health coverage. After nearly a century of trying, he said, "we are closer than ever to bringing more security to the lives of so many Americans." He urged Congress, "Let's find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people."
Earlier in the day, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the House could pass the Senate health bill and use the "budget reconciliation" process to improve it as many legislators insist. Budget reconciliation requires a simple majority in the Senate, letting Democrats avoid a Republican filibuster.
Photo: Marilyn Bechtel