NEW YORK — It was bitterly cold outside Harlem Hospital here March 4, but protesters were fired up. Their malfunctioning bullhorn, intermittently sounding like the Emergency Broadcast System, provided an appropriate signal: Harlem Hospital, Medicaid and poor people are facing an emergency.

Under the call “Health care for all: The moral prescription,” the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition (GNYLRC), in conjunction with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 37, gathered for an interfaith vigil in front of Harlem Hospital to demand an end to Medicaid cuts.

The vigil was part of a series of initiatives by the GNYLRC and 12 local unions to stop the assault on health care in poor communities. The event kicked off the GNYLRC’s 10th annual 40-hour fast, which encouraged New Yorkers to go without solid food for 40 hours to call attention to this vital issue. The coalition will also be petitioning elected officials to expand public access to quality health care and to stop budget cuts in public health services.

In a system that increasingly puts profit before people, prescription drugs in the U.S. cost 30 percent to 60 percent more than the same medication in other industrialized countries. Almost one-third of every health care dollar goes to CEOs and stockholders. Workers are cheated further because insurance companies generally fight patients’ claims.

A graphic reflection of this inequality in health care is the fact that while the U.S. spends the highest percentage of its gross national product of all industrial countries on health care, overall U.S. health statistics are appalling, particularly in African American and minority communities. African Americans lead whites in virtually every category of disease and illness. Death and disease complication rates are higher for African Americans and recovery rates tend to be lower.

“We have the ability to heal people through health sciences, our health knowledge and our health workers,” Michael Relyea of St. Mark’s Bowery Church and a member of Local 1113 DC 37 said at the vigil. “These gifts from God are not given to us to enrich the insurance companies or to expand and empower the corporations. They are given to us so that all the people may be healed from their sicknesses and enjoy a good life.”

A report in the New England Journal of Medicine over a decade ago revealed that the health status (particularly life expectancy) of African American men in Harlem is worse than in Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries. Yet Harlem Hospital stands to lose up to $300 million, which would severely reduce services and affect patient care — this for a facility that serves one of the most poverty-stricken communities in the nation. These cuts will eliminate many vital programs serving children, low-income families, disabled people and the elderly.

“[We] come to send a clear message, to the White House, to the Statehouse; to City Hall … we will not rest,” City Council member Stanley Michael said. “Health care is a right. Whether you are a working-class person or you are uninsured, every citizen of this country and of this city deserves to have decent and good health care.”