On May 1 the Philadelphia City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for a ballot referendum on November 4, 2003, for an addition to the City Charter requiring the Department of Health to prepare a plan for universal healthcare coverage that permits every Philadelphian to obtain decent healthcare on a regular basis.

The purpose of the resolution is not to force the city to provide care for everyone, which it says it can’t afford to do, but rather to identify city, state, federal and private funds that collectively can be used to ensure access for all residents. As funds become available, the plan can be used to quickly implement the use of these funds.

Supporters say the plan can be used as an advocacy tool for state and federal dollars and will demonstrate support for universal access on a local level. The plan will inform Philadelphians about available assistance in obtaining healthcare and will be a complement to any bioterrorism or communicable disease plan required of the city.

In Philadelphia 94,000 adults and children had no healthcare coverage in 2000 and most likely that number has increased.

The resolution was sponsored by Council members David Cohen, Angel Ortiz, W. Wilson Goode Jr., Frank Dicicco, and Michael Nutter. The Philadelphia Area Committee to Defend Health Care is the organization that has worked tirelessly for two years to get this legislation passed. Members collected 10,000 signatures on petitions and lobbied all City Council members.

Hearings on the bill were held on April 24. One of the first speakers to support the bill was Dr. Walter Tsou, the city’s former Health Commissioner and a member of the Philadelphia Area Committee to Defend Health Care. He explained that the health centers provide only outpatient care and do not cover all of the uninsured. “Hospitals in Philadelphia spend millions of dollars annually on uncompensated care,” said Dr. Tsou.

Councilman Angel Ortiz said, “There is a healthcare crisis in our city and state and City Council has the responsibility to see that a plan is developed to meet the needs of all Philadelphia residents.” Kathy Black, safety director for American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees District Council 47 and president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, said, “If the media would properly inform Americans, everyone would support universal healthcare.” Black spoke about the increasing costs of healthcare and Congress’s unwillingness to solve the problem.

Henry Nicholas, 1199C Hospital and Nursing Home Employees Union president, spoke about the monopolies of the insurance and pharmaceutical companies being the greatest problem. Dr. Robert Reineke, a faculty member of Jefferson Hospital Medical School, said a city health plan would attract businesses and jobs to the city. “The Constitution guarantees every felon a lawyer. Shouldn’t every patient be guaranteed a doctor?” asked Reineke.

Kattie Sipp, Service Employees International Union political director, explained the difficulties of negotiating union contracts with health care costs increasing annually and employers cutting benefits and increasing co-pays. “Healthcare needs to come off the bargaining table,” said Sipp. “By putting this issue on the ballot, Philadelphia will take the important step of educating the city about universal healthcare and getting the attention of Congress.”

Sylvia Metzler, a certified registered nurse practitioner, works part time at the Catholic Worker Free Clinic. She gave many examples of how people fall through the cracks and lose their health and sometimes their lives. Randal Emery, a small business owner and a former Canadian citizen, said that the difficulty in paying for healthcare is the number one reason small businesses fail.

“The next step is to go into the communities and encourage people to come out and vote for the City Charter amendment for universal healthcare,” said Diane Mohney, a member of the Philadelphia Area Committee to Defend Health Care.

The author can be reached at phillyrose1@earthlink.net