Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nationwide Demonstrations Spark A New Civil Rights Movement

By Alexander Prisant

In what organizers are calling “the largest non-violent civil disobedience movement” since the 1960’s marches for civil rights, over a thousand grassroots health care activists of all ages have staged a second round of sit-ins and controlled confrontations at corporate health insurance offices across the nation.

Some sit-ins are being led by veteran front-line emergency room and pediatric physicians willing to go to prison in Los Angeles, New York and Baltimore, all for the cause of better health care.

Typical of the activist physicians is Dr. Ken Weinberg a 25-year emergency room doctor in the New York area who put it bluntly: “The insurance companies are criminals,” he declared at a press conference.

The protesters say nothing being considered by Senator Harry Reid will provide a workable system. However, the doctors said there are still other bills in Congress that could transform the system.

Virgilio Marquina, 72 of Miami, faced down a score of police alone (photo above). He was cuffed and arrested for simply standing outside a building with a CIGNA office in South Florida. “I have Medicare,” he said. “I’m doing this for my family—they have nothing.” At the scene, a veteran journalist was held back by a Sunrise, FL police officer who claimed: “You can’t be a journalist—you’re wearing funny shoes.” Protestors were outnumbered 3 to 1 by police, who were waiting with a hovering helicopter, riot van and full fleet of police cars nearby. Demonstrators simply asked that CIGNA allow physicians permission to give life-saving treatment to CIGNA patients facing death. The company refused.

Two hours later in Glendale, near Los Angeles the father of 17-year-old Nataline Sarkisyan--- who died when CIGNA refused to allow a liver transplant---spoke passionately at the company’s door to sit-in volunteers, including Dr. Matt Hendrickson--and police preparing to arrest them.

“Can our system work anymore?” said Dr. Weinberg. “This is our attempt to make something happen before, I believe, it will get vastly worse for Americans needing care.”

The doctors provided recent accounts of having to turning away the seriously ill—from those attempting suicide, to a mother of three with aggressive cancer-- because insurers denied hospital admission. “We see it every day,” said Dr. Hendrickson, a veteran Los Angeles ER physician.

The protestors are staging sit-downs and facing arrests at the front doors of for-profit insurers in nearly a dozen cities. It is the second round of such protests in two weeks. But this week the protests spread from Virginia Beach to Portland. From San Francisco to Columbus, Ohio. Further demonstrations are planned for additional cities later this week.

The for-profit companies being picketed are spending on average $1.4 million per day in lobbying fees on Capitol Hill. They include Humana, Blue Cross, United Health, Cigna, WellPoint, Aetna and others.

“Within little more than a month we’ve grown into the largest non-violent civil-disobedience campaign since the Civil Rights movement,” says Kai Newkirk of Mobilization for Health Care Now. “We must create the moral imperative.”

One observer noted: “The American people are beginning to feel that health care is really about civil rights for the individual and the grass roots are responding the way it did in Martin Luther King’s day.”

It was Dr. King who famously noted: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking.”

Dr. Margaret Flowers, a Maryland pediatrician, put it in her own words: “Doctors watch the continuous decline in quality health care because of insurance hurdles, every day.

“We’d hoped for real debate this year,” she explained. “But the Washington debate is not between the stakeholders in health care—doctors and patients. It’s only between the stockholders of for-profit companies in the industry.

“The market model has failed our nation. For decades.” she concluded.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

It’s Time to Name Names

By Alexander Prisant

Not unlike Barnum & Bailey or the Ice Capades, the fire-eaters, dancing bears and tight-rope walkers of the Health Care Road Show have wended their way through our TV sets, our frontal lobes and a town near you, for months. And months.

We’ve missed a bunch of Congressional and White House deadlines, changed direction more times than that and still don’t know when or where we’ll wind up.

One of the questions now must be: Why?

If the original objective was simply to make this a healthier place for most Americans in a cost-effective way—at least up to the standard of, say, Austria or Australia, why can’t we just do what they do? It's true that in a recent poll, Nevadans called the man they elected--Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid-- as spineless. But that's too simple to explain it all.

The real answer is: this Road Show is not actually about health care at all. It is about the Great Divide that bedevils every major debate in this society. The same divide that hung over a nation when it debated a Civil War, the Gold Standard, Social Security, Civil Rights and so on.

This is about National Interest vs. Self Interest. There are a lot of health care stakeholders, but if we’re honest they’re not all altruists. Most doctors want to make good money. Most patients want “Cadillac Health Care” (whatever that means) for their own family. Most nurses would like some more sleep and more rational shifts, all of which cost money, and finally, there are the private heath insurers. Their goal is more transparent—greater profits than Goldman Sachs with executive pay that would ---and does—make Ben Bernanke blush.

Most of these stakeholders do genuinely see some direct benefit in a healthier America, but it may at last be time to stop this Obama-speak that infers we’re all in this together. Because we are not.

Having personally lived in four European and Middle Eastern nations with slightly differing forms of single-payer national health care and having enough chronic illness to get inside these systems first- hand, I am still perplexed as to how my care suffered in any way because there wasn’t a non-medical middle-man in a bad suit with a profit motive, between me and my doctors. Where did I lose out? On a larger scale, I‘ve yet to figure out what entire element of good national health care practice goes wanting in those systems, because those middle-men aren’t around.

(Astonishingly, the absence of any cogent debate on this point in America hasn’t prompted a single press conference heckler to wonder out loud what private health insurers do for their money and why it helps anybody for them to push paper around. A hundred countries get on just fine without that fifth wheel at all. But Americans don’t seem to want to know.)

So it may be time to say what we all secretly know about the 800 pound elephant in the room—some health care stakeholders are in it for the nation; while some are possibly a bit more involved in protecting their wallets. They see the American body politic, anatomically, as their Profit Center.

The following insurers include some that tried to attack the Baucus bill at the very last minute for the ignoble reason they wanted his mark-up to include even stiffer penalties for the “stragglers” not plumping in new premiums to insurer coffers in a new system (nothing about national interest in that line of attack). These folks had no concerns about whom, how or whether anybody received health care in the bill—just the demand that everyone pay premiums—to them. (What? Current profits of 63.1 billion for just one insurer aren't enough?)
So here are some of those billionaires, complete with teasers that speak to their personas:

Aetna - Paid $470 million to settle a physician-led class action suit for short-changing consumers and doctors.

Cigna - Refused a liver transplant to 17-year-old Nataline Sarkisyan, by calling the treatment “experimental” in 2007. The result: Death.

WellPoint – Sued the State of Maine for $9.5 million for insufficient profits from state residents, after increasing profits by 88% in previous 3 years. Was the 1st insurer to oppose Gov. Schwarzenegger’s plan to provide coverage for all Californians in 2007. $10- million/year CEO Angela Braly refused to allow treatment or even speak with Melanie Shouse, a WellPoint member with Stage 4 breast cancer, this month--during the Senate health care debate.

Blue Cross – Sam Pullen’s altruistic, sit-down protest cost him 5 days and nights in Los Angeles’ Central Men’s Jail this week, simply because Blue Cross refused to reconsider its policy denying 20% of life-saving treatments to its own subscribers. Even after Pullen’s release, Blue Cross has flatly refused to speak with him.

Humana – According to the California Nurses’ Association, Humana, like its fellow insurers, denies an average one in five physician requests to treat patients at risk of death. Government statistics estimate such refusals and non-insurance cases result in over 45,000 needless deaths in the US every year.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

American Protest: Boston Tea Party Replaced By Twitter

We're all mad as hell about something. But hardly anybody's budging.

Once upon a time in America, people would say: "Sometimes I have to stand up and be counted." That was in the past.

But today, I had a glimpse of the past. So did this woman. 75 and cuffed. This afternoon.

Somewhere along the way, Americans, who had been willing to commit a Class A felony, to protest by seizing and destroying private property in Boston Harbor, have been reduced to protest-by- tweet, from the couch. That won't even get you a Class C Misdemeanor.

Which brings us to this echo of past protests: an actual demonstration at one of those alleged death panels--the corporate offices of a health insurer so big it could send any Transformer to the ER. Trust Me.

This day was about civil disobedience --an orderly-sit in to coincide with similar sit-ins at major health insurers across the nation. It was also about 8 police cars, 20 sheriff's officers, plus 2 paramedics and one growling police dog. It was also about arrests.

The wild-eyed radicals who demonstrated were mostly senior citizens and mostly middle class, except for some like Leslie Elder who lost all insurance when her cancer recurred twice and now risks losing her home because of medical bills. (It's the way a majority of Americans go bankrupt these days.)

All these people had done was respectfully submit a letter at Humana's door asking merely one thing: Allow treatment prescribed by a Physician for life-threatened Humana patients. The company refused. So a few gentle people sat down at the door until they got a better answer.

The group Health Care Now says: "Nonviolent action is a worldwide tradition based on an understanding that in a society power flows not from guns or positions of authority but from the consent and cooperation of the people."

Martin Luther King said: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

The first sheriff's officer to move toward and prepare to handcuff the gentle folk sitting peacefully on the lobby floor glowered and said: "All criminals."

"I"m doing this for my daughter," said James Elder. "She's 27 and if we don't fix health insurance now, it could ruin her life later." As I write, Mr Elder, a simple man well into his 60's, sits in jail.

Sandy Prisant

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Health Insurance Reform: Heading for the Bridge to Nowhere?

Pericles, Eucleides and all the Athenians who founded democracy must be cringing. The last 6 months in Washington could not possibly be what they had in mind.

On the day I was born, the doctors told my father I could not live 24 hours. That was how my interest began in health insurance and its impact on our society. Today, more than 50 years later, I continue to lead a full, productive life. But during all of that time I have had to scrap and struggle for health coverage and have had to live half my adult life outside the US to get that sensible, single-payer national insurance coverage.

My story makes me a virtual poster child for that kind of well-established health care approach. Having paid in tens (hundreds?) of thousands to FICA and corporate health insurers during my decades as a senior executive, I am now "ineligible" for any coverage in the US. Nonetheless I decided to return home last year to try to play a role in promoting a 21st century policy. But even I did not expect this--Congress has been replaced by Cirque du Soleil.

In short, I'm playing Russian roulette with my own health and my family's financial stability for the sake of a country in which the lobbyists for virtually every nook and cranny of the for-profit industry have already gotten Congressional commitments to keep their "share of the pie". (NY Times, 11 October)

If I fall down in the street today, I pray no one takes me to a hospital--it would bankrupt my loved ones. That is the nightmare 47 million Americans now live with. If Americans believe there is a right to life, there must also be a right to health care sans bankruptcy. It is an intrinsic corollary.

After decades of personal frustration, I've now had to endure with all of you months of calculated propaganda--false to the last word. There has been less debate than what you can get by reading a box of Cocoa Puffs.

Can we all at least agree on one thing? That every American should, at a minimum, have the health care rights on paper afforded the citizens of Vanuatu and Uganda. Even if only to appease ancient Athenian spirits.