Movements in the US call to expand healthcare access

The Nonviolent Medicaid Army organized a week of action from September 13-20 to strengthen calls to expand healthcare coverage and unite organizations working on the issue

September 23, 2021 by Zoe Alexandra
People protesting for right to health. Photo: Skylar Maguire

Organizations across the United States organized protests, cultural activities, community kitchens, teach-ins, and other actions about the issue of healthcare access in the US from September 13-20 as part of the Nonviolent Medicaid Army Week of Action. The diverse actions had the goal of uniting people directly impacted by healthcare denial and linking the different issues related to healthcare such as housing, police violence, access to clean water, and economic inequality. Actions were organized in the states of Alabama, California, Florida, Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Vermont.

The week of action organized by the Nonviolent Medicaid Army (NVMA) was cosponsored by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, the National Union Of The Homeless, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation – PSL.

Healthcare should serve the community

In the state of Pennsylvania, the organization Put People First – PA organized several actions in towns and cities across the state to engage with the community and discuss the need for healthcare. In Johnstown, the Healthcare Rights Committee organized a candlelit vigil to “honor the lives of people lost from being denied healthcare and being forced into poverty.” In the small city of Altoona, a Community Care Health Fair was organized wherein organizers distributed essential items such as diapers, tampon/pads, wound care packs, sanitary/shower packs, clothing, narcan/safe usage information, and offered haircuts, wellness checks, and mental health consultations. In Columbia towards the south of the state, a public story share and door knocking action was carried out in order to hear from residents directly about their experiences with the healthcare system.

Johnstown Healthcare Rights Committee held a candlelight vigil to honor the lives of people lost from being denied healthcare and being forced into poverty. Photo: Mykkie Lyn Ritenour

In Montgomery, the capital of the southern state of Alabama, activists on September 20 braved the rain to rally and reiterate their calls for the state’s governor Kay Ivey to expand Medicaid. Alabama is one of the 12 conservative states that refused to expand Medicaid in 2014 under the Affordable Care Act, and as a result as many as 300,000 low income residents have been denied access to care.

In Wisconsin, members of the Wisconsin Poor People’s Campaign gathered to share a meal and make paintings to discuss what kind of healthcare their communities want and need. In Mt. Vernon, New York a rally was held outside the hospital under the banner “Save Mt Vernon Hospital” demanding that the struggling hospital receive more funds to be able to properly serve the community.

The NVMA is composed of organizations “of the poor and dispossessed whose members are directly impacted by the fight for healthcare as a human right or any of the fronts of struggle faced by those who are on Medicaid or who need it.” The organization focuses their struggle around access to healthcare, and specifically Medicaid – government funded healthcare insurance for low-income people – because they see it is an issue which touches all sectors of the working class in the US and internationally and has the potential to unite people across historic divisions.

Healthcare in the wealthiest country on the planet

In the United States, despite being the wealthiest country in the world, access to healthcare continues to be a privilege and not a human right. The devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic showed many that despite the US having achieved important scientific and technological advances, the pervasive inequality and the for-profit healthcare model means that many are left behind. Over 675,000 people have died in the US so far from COVID-19 and over 42 million have been infected.

The lack of access to healthcare due to high costs or being uninsured is one of the key explanations behind these numbers.

According to data from the US Census Bureau looking at health insurance coverage in 2019, 8 percent of the population, totalling around 26.1 million people, did not have health insurance at any point during the year. The same data set states that among those that are covered, 68 percent had private health insurance, which includes employer-based insurance and direct purchase through the “marketplace”, and 34.1 percent had public coverage. Without insurance, people are both denied care and forced to pay the high cost of medical care completely out of pocket.

However, both the insured and the uninsured face the challenge of being able to pay the costly bills for accessing basic services. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association from July 2021, showed that an estimated 17.8 percent of individuals, around 58.9 million people, had medical debt which totals $140 billion, constituting the largest section of household debt in the US.

These numbers have only gotten worse, especially given that of the 68 percent of people with private insurance, 56.4 percent of those people had employer-based insurance. The loss of at least 6 million jobs in the first months of the pandemic not only meant that millions of people and their families were losing their source of income, but also their health insurance. Many were able to enroll into  Medicaid, but millions more have been excluded.

More than health insurance

As the NVMA points out “as millions are thrown into the ranks of the unemployed or underemployed, Medicaid rolls are skyrocketing, and healthcare continues to be one of people’s top concerns.” For organizations with the NVMA, Medicaid is the solution, and it “can and should be expanded to be a truly universal and comprehensive single payer healthcare system with no restrictions or hurdles.”

With its week of action, the NVMA once again raised the slogan that “healthcare is a human right” and emphasized that in a country with an abundance of wealth, the fact that millions are denied access due to inability to pay for the care or lack of access to insurance, is a political decision by the ruling class.

To learn more about the campaign and access to healthcare in the US, check out this interview with an organizer from NVMA Nijmie Dzurinko:

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