Saturday, October 31, 2009

Health Care Activism: Mobilizing to Lose?

It's been forever since I blogged, I know, and I'm sorry about that. I've been sooooo swamped, mostly with organizing, but also with some difficult personal stuff. A good friend of mine, Rosemary Lenihan, whom I worked with at Brobeck years ago and stayed in touch with through a lot of tough times for both of us, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August and died less than two months later. I went to her first and just about only oncology appointment, and was planning to put in motion all the great support I learned from you all when I had b.c., but didn't really get a chance to because she declined so quickly. Her sister, Eileen, and a couple of her other friends and I mainly tried to keep her company in the hospital for the last couple weeks as she essentially wasted away. I've witnessed a lot of difficult deaths, my father's, from brain cancer, and of course Stephen and Ron and David and all the others we lost during those early years of AIDS, my aunt Brina from lung cancer, and even the "easy" ones, like my friend Joan, who dropped dead of a stroke at 51, are not easy when you're losing someone you loved. But this was about the worst for me, although she was apparently not in pain once they got her on methadone.

There's been quite a lot of other death in the last few months, two friends lost their mothers, one of whom I also knew and was fond of, my coworker's long-time lover died of HIV complications after being in a nursing home for 15 years, two women I knew slightly died suddenly of heart attacks, and Nancy Redwine, a writer and activist I admired a lot who was close to friends of mine in Seattle and Santa Cruz, died of breast cancer after battling it for years. She and I were the same age and of course, my cancer experience made me feel more connected to her.

So this Halloween/Day of the Dead promises to be a highly emotional time for me. I planned to go to the Spiral Dance, but due to the Bay Bridge closure I just can't face taking that much public transportation in San Francisco on Halloween. Last night on BART I felt truly homicidal. I'll just have to light my own candles and think about my gone-beyond people while enjoying some much-needed solitude and calm quiet time, oh, and cherishing that extra hour of sleep.

I went to two pretty good actions for health care this week. One I was heavily involved in organizing – a blockade of Blue Shield in San Francisco on Wednesday, part of the national mobilization for health care for all. We worked really hard to get about 30 people to risk arrest – I had hoped for 50 but still it was good, and there were about 200 people at the rally, also good but a little disappointing because I’ve been to some very large pickets for single payer and I think a lot of people didn’t hear about it because of infighting among the various groups here in the Bay. We publicized the action for a nearby building that houses United Healthcare, where we rallied for about half an hour before marching to Blue Shield, and that worked out really well because they had no idea they were the target so they didn’t lock everything down ahead of time. They didn’t make a complaint so the cops ignored us and after about an hour, we decided to call it a day, leaving behind a lot of crime scene tape and sidewalk chalking. Everyone had a good experience, and a lot of different groups participated together for the first time, which was excellent. (Check out the great video and photos.)

Then on Friday there was an action organized by the San Francisco Labor Council at the office building which houses Cigna (and also Aetna, although the group didn’t seem to know that). This one was fun because we wore costumes and went into the lobby of the building, but of course didn’t get anywhere near Cigna’s second-floor offices; the security guards informed us that the elevator would not go up with us in it.

Incidentally, the reason I had pushed for Blue Shield as our target was specifically because they have a whole building, with their logo prominently displayed all over the outside of the building, in contrast to these other companies which are hidden in the bowels of generic office buildings. I think that a lot of activists are not as attentive to the visual impact of their actions as they could be. It’s fun to go chant in the lobby, and I’m sure the companies that are targeted hear about it, but is pissing off the security guards of highrises really our goal?

Yesterday’s action was politically all over the map – some people were all about public option, some were saying single payer one minute and public option the next. Our action was very consciously supporting only single payer, and some people went ballistic because one of the national organizers put out an email telling people about our action in which she said people should demand the public option. I personally think that it doesn’t make that much difference, I mean, of course it makes a difference, I’m totally for single payer, but we’re not going to get either, and I think we should not let the divisions within our movement overshadow the main points which are, 1) that we need health care for all, and 2) thirty cents of every health care dollar goes to insurance company profits. I’m sure all those tea party people don’t agree on everything, in fact I know they don’t, some of them are complaining about Wall Street bailouts while others are busy demanding and grabbing those same bailouts, but they don’t let that stop them from coming together to destroy their enemies – Obama and the Democrats.

Now people are gearing up for more actions next week, to pressure Pelosi, Waxman and Miller, the House leadership, to restore the Kucinich Amendment (allowing states to elect a single payer system) to the bill that will go to the House floor. Some people are saying we have to do them on Monday because the decision is likely to be made that day, others that we should wait until Tuesday because we don’t have enough time to organize for Monday, and others that it doesn’t matter because we can’t influence the legislative process anyway.

Myself, I think that we need to pressure Pelosi in her home district, remind her that she still works for us, even if she doesn’t think so, and that she can’t be speaker of the House if she doesn’t represent San Francisco at least occasionally. But more than that, I just think it’s great that there are rowdy well-organized health care actions several times a week in this area and in a number of cities around the country. Okay, so the mass media are not giving us as much hype as they did the right-wing-nut-cases, but when did they ever? We are making noise, we are coming together, we are building a movement, and that’s what we need to do, even if it’s late. Until National Nurses Organizing Committee, Physicians for Single Payer and Health Care for All started interrupting Congressional hearings, Pelosi, Reed and Obama were sure that they could just tuck the public option and any other concession to the idea that insurance companies are not our pals in a drawer and say no more about it. The activism has forced them to at least give lip service to what they once claimed to believe. And as my friend Deeg says, we need to start reminding people that win or lose, and it’s almost assured we will mostly lose, the vote is not the end, it needs to be the beginning.

I don’t really know whether I hope the Democrats win or lose the health care vote. If they lose, that is, if they don’t succeed in passing a plan, they’re pretty much through. The Republicans will doubtless take back Congress next year, and then even if Obama wins a second term, he’ll be like Clinton in his second term, hamstrung and moving ever to the right – and let’s face it, he doesn’t have that far to go. And while we can say that it doesn’t make any difference, they’re all the bourgeoisie (which they are), they’re all sold out to the corporations (which they certainly are), they’re all warmongers and robber barons and liars and torturers and imperialists and Zionists, all of which they are, it’s also true that there are some differences, and the small differences matter most to the people who are the closest to not making it in this country. My friend Jean mentioned the other day that in 2000, she was going around West Berkeley campaigning for Nader, and an older Black woman said to her, “I can’t afford that.”

If the Democrats and Obama lose the battle for health care, it’s not going to get written as a victory for the progressive forces, punishing them for writing us off. It’s going to be seen as a massive victory for the Republicans and the insurance industry, which despite their posturing (“We were the first to call for health care for all” claims the CEO of Blue Shield, who did in fact author a plan in 2006 which is very similar to the one Obama is pushing now) and their back-room deals with the Democrats, are really hoping to derail any reform. I voted for Nader in 2000, and I probably would have voted for him even if I lived in Florida, and I would probably do it again. But the fact is that voting for Nader that year did not bring us closer to being a real democracy or to breaking the two-party stranglehold. It certainly didn’t make the left look strong. It proved that going all out, with a celebrity-level candidate, the left could muster 2.75% of the vote, not even enough to qualify for federal funding. Erstwhile Republicans John Anderson and Ross Perot did much more to challenge the two-party hegemony in their third-party presidential bids, getting 7% and 18.9% respectively, in 1980 and 1992. (And Perot can take credit for getting Clinton elected, which I’m sure is something he wants on his epitaph as much as Nader wants electing Bush on his.)

So working to make sure the Democrats don’t succeed in passing a crappy health reform bill, with or without a lousy public option hardly anyone has access to, is not going to help win single payer, nor is it going to prove that the left is a force to be reckoned with in this country. At best, it is going to make the less-right-wingers in Congress look more like a house divided than it already does. At worst, the 40 million people and rising who currently have virtually no access to health care will have even less as the public health systems continue to be eroded and the numbers of people dying for lack of health care will climb.

On the other hand, if the Democrats do succeed in passing some form of health reform, they are going to be unstoppable in their drive to run over anyone who tries to challenge them from the left. It’s going to prove that Rahm Emmanuel and Max Baucus were right to bulldoze over the progressive caucus and the single-payer advocates and the people who pointed out that the main beneficiaries of this bill are going to become gods. And realistically, barring some major upheaval in this country, it will be at least twenty years before we will be able to build a major movement for reforming the reformed health care system.

It seems pretty clear to me that whatever passes, if something does, is likely to double or triple the costs of health care coverage for people like me, people with pretty good employer-paid health insurance. It’s likely to cut quality and drive up costs of care to people on Medicare – the Republicans are not actually lying about that (of course, they are lying when they claim that they are the defenders of Medicare, when they have consistently voted to privatize or kill it). In exchange for all of that destruction, some people who currently can’t get health insurance, or who have insurance but can’t use it to get health care because of preexisting conditions, etc., will actually be able to see doctors. We can’t let our principled objections to bad compromises obscure that important point.

People say, “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.” No one could call this plan good. But one might say that we should not let the good become the enemy of the slightly better. True? Who knows?