Fighting to Cure a Sick System: Single Payer Advocates Take Unconventional Approach to Healthcare Reform

By Laura S. Boylan for The Indypendent

Katie Robbins thinks the fight for universal healthcare is so important she is willing to put her butt on the line.

An organizer with Healthcare-NOW!, Robbins is helping to ratchet up protests to push Congress to establish a single-payer healthcare system.

As part of the campaign, Robbins and others are donning hospital gowns and shiny plastic buttocks that stick out the back of their gowns. Once dressed, the activists take their message to the public: “Private health insurance is like a hospital gown, chances are your ass is not covered.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Robbins and other activists jumped on a subway train on the 1 line. They handed out flyers explaining that healthcare should be a human right and publicly funded insurance for everyone was the best solution to the healthcare crisis. The activists happened upon a Mariachi band, and the combination of outlandish outfits and festive music seemed to inspire subway riders to scoop up the leaflets.

In the past, proponents of single-payer healthcare took a more conventional approach. For 20 years, Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) have used academic journals, traditional media and PowerPoint presentations to spread its message. But things are heating up.

In January, doctors, nurses, students, labor unions, religious organizations and activists launched the Leadership Conference for Guaranteed Health Care. Inspired by the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, which helped pass groundbreaking legislation in the 1960s, the healthcare alliance claims to represent more than 20 million people.

Single-payer healthcare advocates argue that only by having the federal government provide business-and taxpayer-funded health insurance can everyone receive guaranteed healthcare access. This system would also save money by eliminating the health insurance industry’s profits and extensive bureaucracy.

In contrast, the Obama administration and Congress propose new industry regulations, mandates and public subsidies for individuals to purchase private insurance, and perhaps some type of public insurance. These proposals would still leave millions of Americans uninsured while subsidizing for-profit insurers.

To pay for the plans, Democrats, with no shortage of Republican support, are considering $600 billion in cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, a first-ever national sales tax and taxes on employer-based health insurance.

Single-payer healthcare has more support in the public than in the halls of power. Only after single-payer healthcare advocates mobilized a mass call-in campaign and threatened a demonstration of health professionals were they invited to Obama’s healthcare summit in March.

Yet they were excluded from key hearings in the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who raked in more than $1.8 million in healthcare industry donations in the 2008 election cycle.

In May, 13 protesters, including doctors and nurses, were arrested after they disrupted committee hearings by standing up and demanding a seat at the table. Robbins was the third to speak out. She declared, “We want a seat at the table.” In response, Baucus snapped, “We need more police.”

Baucus told one activist at a public event in Washington, D.C., in May that he supports single-payer healthcare but does not push for it because “we don’t have the votes.”

Activists targeted Baucus when he came home on recess after the finance committee hearings. Single-payer healthcare supporters were a visible and vocal presence at town hall meetings across Montana. Baucus canceled personal appearances, sending instead a video and a representative for this “listening tour.” A “buy back our senator” campaign is in the works.

Single-payer healthcare advocates have made modest inroads into legislative hearings. Dr. Margaret Flowers, one of the “Baucus 13,” was invited to testify before a Senate committee. Flowers said, “We are no closer to having more support for singlepayer in the Senate, [but] things are a little better in the House,” Flowers said. She added that one goal is to get the Congressional Budget Office to do a financial analysis of single-payer healthcare this year.

Healthcare industry lobbying groups reported $127 million in lobbying expenditures in the first three months of this year. Five trade associations combined have hired more than 20 former government employees as lobbyists, including ex-congressional staffers. PNHP has five staffers for all operations and an annual budget of less than $1 million.

Some opponents of single-payer healthcare have resorted to artificial grassroots movements known as “Astro Turf.” One Boston consulting firm hired by the insurance industry reportedly faked letters from senior citizens in support of Medicare privatization.

Instead of relying on money and underhanded tactics, Flowers says, “We must build a civil rights movement like those that have come before.”

Laura S. Boylan, M.D., is a practicing neurologist, faculty member at the New York University School of Medicine and board member of Physicians for a National Health Program Metro NY.


  1. Terry Brauer on July 14, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Now we are getting in gear! The proponents of what amounts to superficial healthcare reform-cosmetics may be able to buy lobbyists and consulting firms to amplifiy their snow jobs, but their credibility will be invariably challenged by those who have developed the moxie and savvy to utilize facts effectiely.

    Progressive organizations are finally casting aside their knives and bringing guns to the gunfight. As long as Congress and The White House are confronted with the fundamennal question — Why are you willing to entrust the nation’s healthcare finance and delivery system to the same crews that federal and state governments have been investigating, fining, and penalizing for fraud, waste, and abuse for decades? — we have a shot at arousing the disgust of the American middle class and moving single-payer within the scope of possibility.

    Rewarding the financial services industry for unconscionable behavior should have taught Congress something about the necessity for vigilant oversight protection of Americans’ financial resources. It is outrageous that this lesson has not taken hold for the compelling need to ensure an accessible, affordabe, safe, and quality-assurance universal healthcare system based upon an evidence-based, value-derived, cost-effective and prevention-oriented single-payer model.

  2. Carla Rautenberg on July 17, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    It’s certainly interesting what happens when you click on Terry Brauer’s name.

    Whoever Terry is or isn’t, I don’t like to see healthcare reform discussed with metaphors of knives and guns.

  3. Diane Froug on July 22, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Dear Ed I enjoy your show. My husband is an American and has been watching you for years.

    Do you have the “balls” to go to Toronto, Ontario and really find out what’s going on in the Canadian Health Care system?

    Every area differs. I lived in Ontario for 37 years and have lived in the US over 11 years.

    When you go to Toronto please see a Doctor Keith, Internest at Mc Master University Hospital and ask him why he is letting my best friend dye.

    Please excuse my grammar, repeition spelling erros etc., as the message is more important than my flaws. I am chronically ill and can only sit for a short period of time, so I try to fit as much info as I can. This is not a joke of a hoax letter. Please take what I have to say seriously.

    Hey is not treating for anything. He fucked up and gave her asthma medication and she never had asthma. She has been coughing for over 2 years now. She is literally vomitting and coughing and has fungal mucus found after sinus surgery. Which if she hadn’t accidentally got a second opinion, she never would have had the operation in the first place. Because her primary and I mean Primary doctor sent her to a Dr. and told the doctor she was probably faking. This sinus specialist found nothing wrong with her sinuses.
    After she visitied the second specialist which is not usually allowed, he said she needed immedicate surgery. He told her after the surgery she had fungal mucus and it’s a life long condition yet no follow schedule.

    I think the USA medical system is horrible too, but let’s all just make sure that we don’t let the really sick ones slip through the cracks.

    I must admit that more Canadians get better health care than Americans. I was shocked the first time I went to a Doctor and actually had to pay (and worry about paying for it). The work that the medical staff has to deal with on a daily base is crazy. 100’s of different plans with different conditions etc. The time wasted and paper just in that process being eliminated would pay for itself. We all just have to be creative about it. It can be done and better than in Canada. Thanks for listening!

    I’m with you on 99% of the time. You do a great job. And before you head off to Canada … I do think you have “balls” … but could you find out about my best friend whose desperate and dying. Her name is Mary Pendlebury. She lives at 40 Stewart Street, Grimsby, Ontario. Her phone number is 905 945 8476. She is really going to dye if somebody doesn’t get involved. My name is Diane Froug 954 796 6494 I am chronically ill and can not travel to help her. I just barely make it through each day myself. I have a rare condition and I suffer all the time. You are the only person I have asked to do anything for me. For my best friend. Please…please…bring awareness to rare disorders and the way doctors mistreat us. Please
    I am a legal resident in the USA and a Canadian Citizen.

    I can tell you a little bit of about the heath care I received both in the USA and Canadian.

    At first you think it Ok in Canada until you get an illness that is not easily diagosed. If you live in a small community you are lucky if you can find a Dr.

    I am chronically sick with no help from my 37 years in Canada. I have made some progress in the USA but even though my husband pays dearly for our insurance, I am always fighting about bills, coverage, pre approvals etc.

    It’s disgusting. There are many doctors who really care in the US but their hands are tied by the patient’s ability to pay.

    Just one very important question I have about the Canadian Medical System. Why is my dearest friend on earth dying at home when she was misdiagosed, treated sub human and nobody is taking responsiblity for her health care.

    The specialits from the prestigeous McMaster University Hospital, dismissed her fall as being fake, lifted her head and dropped it on the floor so a nurse could put a towel under it and then dragged her to another room.

    They took her off her medication for Fibroymalgia, (and she has colitis, enzeme difiancey and hormonal imbalances) because they said she was alergic to it even though she’d been on it for 20 years. I take it too and for 20 years because I have a rare disease that not one American Doctor seems to want to handle.

    In a nut shell she is literally dying at home, vomiting, coughing, digestive problems, unable to eat and can not work.

    My only concern about single payer option is how complacent it can be and once again somebody likes to play “God” and they lose their original intent. I had a couple great doctors in Canada but 3 out of 4 left to practice in the USA.

  4. Diane Froug on July 22, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    the end of my reply was cut off.

    It true that the AMerican healthcare system is dying. Hundreds of plans that take thousands of hours to check the conditions, pre approvals, deductables etc. is sheer insantiy.

    Imagine the money and trees that would be saved by just cutting out that step.

    Amazing … lets all just be a little more creative about Health care. It’s do-able!

    Get it done NOW!