BRATTLEBORO—As an estimated 475 people listened, several people, including activist Ady Barkan and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, told their personal stories of the impact of the current health-care system in the United States on them and others, and why they are advocating for change.
The nonprofit Rights & Democracy brought “Be A Hero: Organizing for Health Care Justice and a Stronger Democracy,” to the Latchis Theatre on Aug. 10 where speakers in succession made impassioned arguments for universal, government-supported health care.
Despite the expansion of health-care reform with the passage of the 2009 Affordable Care Act, the audience at the rally learned that 30 million people remain uninsured nationwide and that many others have insurance that still leaves them unable to afford co-payments and ultimately access to needed medical treatments.
“We should not be living in a nation today, where we have the insane situation of one out of five Americans who receive a prescription [...] not being able to fill that prescription because they cannot afford the outrageously high prices of prescription drugs in America,” said Sanders, billed as a “special guest.”
Sanders, an independent self-described democratic socialist who sought the Democratic nomination for the 2016 presidential election, also brought up the issue of the life expectancy of wealthy people being significantly higher than that of poor people.
“The length of our life should not be dependent upon our income,” he said. “If you live in America, you [should be] entitled to health care because you are a human being.”
Other speakers shared stories and information with attendees.
One such speaker, Megan Harris, a member of Rights and Democracy, which organized the rally at the Latchis (see story, this issue), told not only about her family members but also her close friends and several acquaintances who have suffered the consequences of public health-care policy in the United States.
Harris, a former regional field director with the Sanders presidential campaign, also lambasted the inefficient treatment that has become the norm in the country — even for people who urgently need help.
Last month, Harris picked up the phone and at the other end found her mother calling with some bad news.
“She said, ’Your brother has a blockage in his heart.’” Harris states she could hear her mother’s “face fall, through the phone” when she had to say that the blockage would “be considered a pre-existing condition” because his condition could be linked to many years of medication for bipolar disorder.
Harris also told the story of her youngest brother, someone who has several disorders, including crippling depression, yet remains unmedicated.
“They called us to push back his Medicaid intake evaluation,” she said. “Can you imagine if you called the suicide hotline and you were put on hold? That’s what the American system has become.”
Harris said that as she has told her story, she has seen a desire for change.
“But I will say that I do feel a change. Across the country, people are demanding that we move to a single-payer system. That our health insurance is no longer tied to our employment, or our spouse’s employment, or our parent’s status.”
Other speakers included Nancy Braus, proprietor of Everyone’s Books on Elliot Street; Emilie Kornheiser, recent winner of the Democratic primary for the Windham-1 district in the Vermont House of Representatives and a member of the Rights & Democracy Leadership Committee; Sarah Launderville, executive director of the Vermont Center for Independent Living, speaking on behalf of the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights; and James Haslam, the executive director of Rights & Democracy.
‘Not going quietly’
The Be A Hero tour is centered around Barkan, who lives with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative neurological disease known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” The activist is using the tour to spread awareness and gather support for his fight for a Medicare-for-all system in the United States.
“I may be dying, but I’m not going quietly,” he said.
Barkan spoke of his personal desire for a more-effective health-care system, and he also noted the similarities between people across the country that he’s been making speeches to on his tour, and their wishes for a system more focused on the people.
“So many people we meet are in search of freedom. The freedom to thrive,” he said. “My personal experience like that of so many of you in this room is an example of [...] why we have a flawed health-care system and why we need a much better one.”
Sanders speaks on the economy of inequality
Sanders urged the audience to vote in officials whose interests are to support the needs of the people and to listen to the wishes of those whom they are meant to be serving.
He spoke to show his support for Barkan’s cause, and his belief “that the time is long-overdue that the United States will not continue to be the only major country on Earth not to guarantee health care to all people as a right.”
Sanders stated that, considering the effect the political climate has had on the nation, he is joining in the goal of waging “a political revolution in this country which transforms not only the politics of America but the economics as well.”
He urged the audience members to use their own power to change the U.S. electoral system and to fight for the appropriate representation of democracy.
“American democracy is not billionaires like the Koch brothers and others buying elections,” he said.
People from throughout the U.S. “understand that we cannot continue to have a corrupt campaign finance system that allows billionaires to buy elections,” Sanders added.
Barkan and Sanders both touched on the connections among everything in the political sphere and how the lack of treatment for those who are unable to afford medical care is connected to how a small proportion of people in the country owns the most wealth — and how our economic system allows that wealth to increase exponentially.
“And that same person [...] pays many of his workers wages that are so low that you are forced to subsidize them when they go on food stamps, and Medicaid, and subsidized housing,” Sanders said. “And all across this country, people are saying, ‘Pay your workers a livable wage.’”
A parting declaration
As Sanders left the event at the Latchis Theatre, he gave a parting statement.
“Our job right now is to stand up and say, ‘no more!,’” he told the attendees. “We’re not going to see people in this country die because they can’t afford health care. We’re not going to continue to see people go bankrupt.”
“We’re not going to see an incredible discrepancy in life expectancy,” he continued. “The time [is] now, and this time is long overdue, for us to stand up proudly and declare that in Vermont and in every state in this country, health care is a human right.”
And, Sanders said, “we are going to succeed, sooner than people believe, in creating a Medicare-for-all health care system in this country.”