Thursday, February 19, 2015

Student activism for single payer

Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP)

Report Back from the 4th Annual Students for a National Health Program
(SNaHP) Summit

The 4th annual SNaHP summit took place on Saturday, February 14, 2015,
on the medical campus of the University of Illinois-Chicago. More than
170 medical and health professional students from over 50 schools
gathered to discuss single payer, develop their activism and advocacy
skills, and create a national strategy for achieving Medicare for All.
There were students from states that had never been represented before
including, among others, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, and North
Carolina. The fact that so many students, more than double the number
that attended the prior year, flocked to Chicago on Valentine's Day is a
testament to the growing commitment of health professional students to
achieving equitable and universal access to health care. Click on the
link below to view presentations and photos from the conference.


Guest Comment:

By Scott Goldberg, MS3

I had the honor of delivering the opening address – entitled "Where
We've Been and Why We'll Win – at the 4th annual SNaHP summit. The talk
focused on the century-long struggle for national health insurance, what
we can learn from these efforts, and why students are well-positioned to
spark a broad, social movement for single payer. Here is an excerpt from
the speech:

"Now, I'm not disillusioned by the 100-plus year history of failing to
achieve national health insurance. In fact, there are important lessons
that can inform our efforts and that give me hope that we will be
successful where those before us were not.
First, the AMA has opposed single payer since 1917. But while the AMA
could honestly say it represented the voice of doctors, it no longer
can. Only about 20 percent of physicians are members. This provides an
opening, for another physician organization to step into the void that
speaks on behalf of what is just and right for patients. You may see
where I'm going with this – but this is where Physicians for a National
Health Program comes in. PNHP is the only physician organization
dedicated to the sole purpose of transforming American health care by
passing NHI. And the organization can only grow. If there are 800,000
active doctors in this country, then about 2.5% of them are members of
PNHP. This means we, as students and future doctors, have a lot of work
to do to get our colleagues to sign up. We should be doing this on a
daily basis. Think about all the time you spend with fellow students,
residents and even attendings. Think about how many times the issue of
insurance comes up and you want to scream out: "If we had single payer,
this would not be an issue!" Now, every time that thought comes to mind,
do something about it. Mention single payer and encourage those around
you to sign up for PNHP. These conversations are not, at the core,
political. They are essential to the foundations of our profession, and
we must normalize them. I want you to recruit at least one new colleague
to PNHP each month. It's a modest ask, but if everyone here does it
we'll have nearly 2,000 new members in a year. Then, we can start to
envision a future where PNHP will usurp the AMA as the organization that
speaks on behalf of doctors.

While the AMA might have been a major barrier to NHI in the 20th
century, our biggest barriers now are private health insurance companies
and Big Pharma. You all know that we are facing one of the most
well-financed and formidable opponents in American history. Both have
fought tooth and nail against single payer with their army of lobbyists
and have contributed heavily to candidates for public office to protect
their position and maximize their profits. It is no secret that they
spent $173 million to defeat the public option, which amounted to about
a million dollars a day during the debate over health reform. So when we
talk about single payer, we must talk about the massive profits reaped
at the expense of patient care. The neoliberal corporate agenda has
infiltrated health care and we must vigilantly fight back against the
idea that health care is a commodity and, instead, declare that health
care is a public good that all Americans, regardless of race or class,
should have access to.

But I am not discouraged by our well-resourced foes for three reasons.
One, their arsenal of smear tactics is dwindling. The fear of
"socialized medicine" is waning. Communism coming to America is an
outdated notion. Two, these companies are universally despised. A recent
poll demonstrated that almost all Americans believe that private
insurance companies are the biggest problem in our system. So there's
our message right there – we must get rid of private insurance companies
to have real health reform. Three, ultimately, the system cannot
function without us. If we remain silent, we will only allow these
companies to continue to reap massive benefits at the expense of our
patients and our professional code of ethics. If we, as health care
providers, are united in opposition, we will not be defeated.

You may believe that after 100 years of struggle we will never achieve
single payer. But let me tell you why we will win and what we have to do
to get there.

I want you to look around you. Our movement is growing exponentially.
There are now 35 student PNHP chapters, with 10 new ones in the last
year alone. There are 19,602 PNHP members, 731 of whom are students. The
second SNaHP summit had 40 students, the third had 80, and the fourth
has 160. I emphasize this growth because, historically, students have
been the stimulus and source for broader activism. Just recently in
Chile, following three years of nationwide student protests, the country
will make college tuition-free and are paying for it with a 27% tax on
corporations. Look at the civil rights movement in the US. It was the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that spearheaded the
civil rights movement. The Freedom Riders, not all, but the majority
were young people and students. Over time, it grew and became a mass
popular movement and achieved historic things. We don't know the names
of the leaders of SNCC, but that is the point with movements. We know
the name of Martin Luther King Jr, but who do you think organized the
marches, the talks, the sit-ins? Members of SNCC did. They did the heavy
lifting of organizing, going door to door, and putting their lives on
the line. Our movement does not need a figurehead. It needs unified
direct action.

As Noam Chomsky has said: 'Direct action carries the message forward in
a very dramatic fashion. Direct action means putting yourself on the
line. It indicates a depth of commitment and clarification of the
issues, which often stirs other people to do something.' Achieving
single payer will require resistance and civil disobedience. All the
great movements in history have. Look again at the civil rights
movement. Institutional segregation had been going on for hundreds of
years, but what sparked the movement? A couple of incidents of direct
action. Rosa Parks insisting on sitting in the front of the bus. Black
students sitting at a lunch counter in Greensboro. Without these
actions, the movement would probably never have happened. You can make
as many speeches as you like but they will never have the effect of
those actions. And while the movement started with students, it became
broad-based and diverse. Just like the movement for single payer, we
must reach out to and build ties with labor unions (over 600 have
already endorsed HR 676), civic and faith-based movements, and even
small businesses. While businesses may seem like natural allies of the
private insurance companies, many of them feel the strain of paying to
insure their employees and would clearly benefit from government-run
health insurance.

In closing, Americans are literally dying for equitable, universal
health care access. And so I know that deep down you feel, as I do, that
the time has come for direct action. The question is – when do we get
started? Here's one idea – Medicare's 50th birthday is coming up and a
nationwide coordinated action would be a powerful first step.

When I talk to people about single payer, I often hear: "Oh yeah, I
support single payer but it will never happen in this country." I tell
them that people once thought the abolition of slavery and women's
suffrage could never be won – that these were "unrealistic" dreams. And
yet both of these "unrealistic" dreams were ultimately won. While
moderates were advocating for incremental change, the activists pushed
for revolutionary change and were successful. What seemed impossible
yesterday is something we accept as a given today. So next time someone
says single payer will never happen, tell them this: "If you believe it
won't happen, it never will. But if you believe that the only way it
will happen is to actually do something about it, then I am sure you
will make the only choice that a moral and principled person would, and
that is to join me in this struggle."

Thank you."

(Scott Goldberg is a medical student at the University of Chicago
Pritzker School of Medicine and a member of the board of directors of
Physicians for a National Health Program.)

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