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2013 National Strategy Conference Report

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Healthcare-NOW! held its annual Strategy Conference this year on October 5 and 6 in Nashville, Tennessee at the beautiful Scarritt-Bennett Center near Vanderbilt University. Over 110 activists converged from more than 23 states to discuss organizing strategy, network, and share skill-building. The conference featured four plenary panels, fourteen workshops, and a keynote speech by Frances Fox Piven, the renowned sociologist and historian of social movements in the U.S.

The Conference kicked off with a workshop on “Southern States Strategy: Growing Together.” Margaret (“Peg”) Nosek, PhD of Healthcare for All Texas kicked this off with a presentation on the unique political history facing single-payer activists in the South, the importance to our movement of succeeding in southern states, and the demographic and political changes that are creating hope and new opportunities to succeed there. You can download the Powerpoint presentation with audio here (.pptx).

This was followed by a plenary of Tennessee organizers (video below) introducing attendees to the fascinating history of health reform in our host state, and looking at the Affordable Care Act through the lens of Tennesseans. Gordon Bonnyman of the Tennessee Justice Center and Tony Garr, formerly of the Tennessee Health Movement, described the rise and fall of TennCare, one of the first attempts by a state to use Medicaid waivers to expand health insurance to everyone in the early 1990s. TennCare was dismantled in 2005, dropping 170,000 residents from the rolls in one of the most catastrophic losses of access to care in the history of the country. Mary Bufwack, CEO at a series of community health centers in Nashville, reported that only about 10% of uninsured patients at her health centers were projected to receive coverage under the ACA, leaving the health centers to continue treating non-paying and low-payment patients. TN is one of many states not planning to expand its Medicaid program, and currently has extremely limited Medicaid eligibility. Dr. Art Sutherland, the coordinator of Tennessee Physicians for a National Health Program, reported on the inspiring organizing work he has accomplished in the state, setting up regional PNHP chapters in western, middle, and northeastern TN.

Saturday night closed with a block of workshops. A workshop on “Labor and Single Payer” brought together union activists and community members to compare notes across states, and discuss the unique impact the ACA is having on some unions. “Challenges and Solutions for State Single Payer Legislation” was a nuts-and-bolts workshop for groups working on state legislation to address legal hurdles and craft a viable implementation plan for state bills. A “Southern States Workshop” continued the discussion where the Tennessee plenary left off, and “The 100 x 100 Campaign” was a hands-on tutorial by New York activists about how they collected 10,000 signatures for single-payer reform in one year to grow their movement and advance state single-payer legislation.

Sunday morning kicked off with a plenary of Physicians for a National Health Program speakers (video below) on “The ACA: Challenges and Opportunities for the Single-Payer Movement,” including Dr. Jim Powers of Middle Tennessee PNHP, Dr. Art Sutherland of Tennessee PNHP, and Dr. Garrett Adams of Kentucky PNHP, who gave an outline of what the ACA does and does not accomplish, and how to message for single-payer during implementation. Emily Henkels, National Coordinator for PNHP, organized an exercise for attendees to identify the strengths and skills they bring to the single-payer movement, and think about the underutilized resources at our disposal collectively going into the organizing workshops.

The second block of workshops included “Winning National Single Payer: State Checker Board Strategy,” organized by the One Payer States network, discussed the strategy of achieving national reform by capitalizing on state legislation first where opportunities arise. States are pursuing a diversity of organizing strategies, including legislation and ballot initiatives. “Connecting the Dots for Healthcare Justice” discussed the importance of single-payer activists and organizations connecting up with broader social movements, and the close early relationship between the Civil Rights movement and the movement for public, universal health care. “Building the Movement by Organizing Around HR 676” discussed how to use John Conyers’s “Improved and Expanded Medicare for All” legislation to show the benefits of single-payer reform over the ACA model, and how to use HR676 endorsements to educate new groups and mobilize them for legislative co-sponsorship. Lastly, “Real World Online Organizing” was a skills workshop about how to use email and social media effectively by connecting online with offline actions, establishing a consistent communications schedule, and how HCN can help out local groups.

Frances Fox Piven delivered a keynote address (video below) that put the single-payer movement in the broader context of sweeping changes to the political landscape in the United States. She discussed how American politics on the heels of the New Deal appeared to be rapidly moving towards joining European nations in the guarantee of basic economic rights, including national health insurance. Today, what minimal protections were established for the poor earlier in the century are threatened in ways unthinkable thirty years ago, in a “cloud of wild propaganda” from the base and the top of the right wing. Piven made the case that the current politics in the U.S. resemble that of the 1840s and ‘50s, when the abolitionist movement led to the fracturing of existing political parties, giving rise to new political configurations and the Civil War. Today, growing inequality of wealth has become incompatible with democracy, leading to growing conflict and the appearance of “crazy” politics in the U.S. We see the tension it is creating within the existing political parties today, and the coming turbulence will create new openings for social movements oriented towards equity like single-payer.

The last workshop block brought a discussion of “Winning Congressional Support for Single Payer in the Obamacare Era” organized by Progressive Democrats of America, which focused on PDA’s ‘inside-outside’ strategy, working with the Progressive Caucus within Congress and social movement organizations to apply pressure from the outside. “Answering Questions About HR676” allowed participants to hone their ability to effectively and concisely answer the toughest arguments single-payer advocates commonly face. A workshop from the “Divestment Campaign for Healthcare” talked about the movement to divest investor dollars from for-profit insurers. The workshop focused on the importance of providing a watchdog function as insurers attempt to evade the ACA, and to do more college campus organizing. Finally, “Exploring Our Direct Action Potential” tried to get participants beyond messaging and policy talk, to figure out how the single-payer movement can exercise real social power by identifying its core constituencies and leveraging their power through action rooted in our lived experience.

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