Birthday PIE for Medicare: celebrations urge expanding it for all

OAKLAND, Calif. – As celebrations of Medicare’s first half-century swept the U.S., hundreds of union and community organization members from around the San Francisco Bay Area joined with retirees in multigenerational rallies and a march urging the landmark health program for seniors to be extended to cover everyone in the country.

As they moved from City Hall to the nearby Federal Building, marchers carried banners proclaiming “Medicare: As American as Apple Pie – Protect, Improve, Expand,” “Love It, Improve It – Medicare for All,” and “Health Care is a Human Right!” Many wore tee-shirts of the California Nurses Association-National Nurses United, other unions and organizations of health professionals, while others proclaimed their affiliations with the California Alliance of Retired Americans, single payer coalitions, community and disability rights organizations.

“Now, because of Medicare, our seniors have access to health care, they’re living longer lives, decent lives, and we’re affording them the opportunity to address each and every health care issue they have, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones told the crowd. “That’s something worth fighting for!”

“Medicare has provided health care for literally millions of our seniors, and Medicaid, for tens of millions of the poor,” Jones said. “We need to take profits out of this equation – health care decisions should be based on what’s right for human beings.”

California Nurses Association leader Martha Kuhl called attention to government’s role in other spheres of life: “As a society, we have already made the decision to provide many essential services through paid entities like fire and police protection, libraries and even the roads we drive on.”

Kuhl said a Medicare for All program, with “genuine, comprehensive and uniform benefits” paid for by “pooling all public and private funding together” would cut many costs including CEO salaries and advertising.

Celebrated civil rights leader Dolores Huerta urged pressure on all candidates in next year’s elections to support universal coverage, including for undocumented immigrants.

Second-year medical student Keyon Mitchell, former state coordinator for the California Health Professional Student Alliance – an affiliate of Physicians for a National Health Program – highlighted Medicare’s contribution to desegregating the South, through its denial of federal funds to hospitals that racially discriminated against their patients.

“We are facing difficult times now,” Mitchell said. “We have to treat phrases like ‘Black Lives Matter’ as if we were transported back to the decade of Medicare’s inception, and like the health care and justice movements, our cry is loud and clear: We will not stop until we have reached true health care for all!”

Banners and speakers called for support of HR 676, longtime Ohio Congressman John Conyers’ Medicare for All legislation, recently reintroduced into the House of Representatives.

In a message to the rally, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat who represents Oakland and neighboring communities, said she is “a proud sponsor” of HR 676. She called Medicare and Medicaid “one of our country’s most successful anti-poverty programs” that has “transformed the lives of seniors, the disabled, low income families and undocumented children.”

“Sadly,” she said, “our nation’s health care costs are constantly rising, and my Republican colleagues continue to unload those costs onto our nation’s most vulnerable, the elderly, poor and disabled … it’s past time for Republicans to stop playing political games with people’s health and work in a bipartisan way to ensure all Americans have access to the best possible health care.”

As they waited for the rally to start, members of the crowd shared their views on the anniversary’s significance.

“For me, it’s pragmatic; for many, it’s existential,” said Sabrina Pinnell, a delegate to the San Jose-based South Bay Council from the California Faculty Association. “Single Payer may not be ‘sellable,’ but we need a comprehensive, universal health program, especially now that we’re in a world that can be traversed in hours.”

California Nurses Association member Zen Quebral emphasized the role of preventive services in saving both lives and money, while her colleague Kathy Dennis said voters should demand that candidates support health care for all.

Feng Zhuchen, among many Chinese for Affirmative Action members at the rally, urged that the state’s Medicaid program not be cut, and that essential services be restored, such as dental care for her four young children.

Winding up activities at the Federal Building, participants pulled out their phones to wage a Twitter storm and besiege the White House and Congress with phone calls.

Medicare was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, on July 30, 1965 

Since its inception, it’s been targeted by Republicans; Ronald Reagan famously said that if it weren’t stopped, “you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was like in America when men were free.”

Mortality and disability rates have dropped steadily, as have costs of hospitalizations, and people are far less apt to be hospitalized, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

And according to a study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, undocumented immigrants pay billions more into Medicare annually than they use in health benefits.

Commenting on that study, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said that although Medicare and Medicaid are different programs, he thinks “many of the same points in this research applies to Medicaid and California’s Medicaid program, Medi-Cal.”

Photo: Marilyn Bechtel/PW


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.