Why we risked arrest for single-payer health care

By Margaret Flowers, M.D.–

On May 5, eight health care advocates, including myself and two other physicians, stood up to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the Senate Finance Committee during a “public roundtable discussion” with a simple question: Will you allow an advocate for a single-payer national health plan to have a seat at the table?

The answer was a loud, “Get more police!” And we were arrested and hauled off to jail.

The fact that a national health insurance program is supported by the majority of the public, doctors and nurses apparently means nothing to Sen. Baucus. The fact that thousands of people in America are dying every year because they can’t get health care means nothing. The fact that over 1 million Americans go into bankruptcy every year due to medical debt — even though most of them had insurance when they got sick — means nothing.

And so, as the May 5 meeting approached, we prepared for another one of the highly scripted, well-protected events that are supposed to make up the “health care debate” using standard tools of advocacy. We organized call-in days and faxes to the members of the committee requesting the presence of one single-payer advocate at the table of 15. Despite thousands of calls and faxes, the only reply — received on the day before the event — was, “Sorry, but no more invitations will be issued.”

We knew that this couldn’t be correct. We had heard Sen. Baucus say on that very same day that “all options were on the table.” And so, the next day, we donned our suits and traveled to Washington. We had many knowledgeable single-payer advocates in our group. And as the meeting started, one of us, Mr. Russell Mokhiber, stood up to say that we were here and we were ready to take a seat. And he was promptly removed from the room.

In that moment, it all became so clear. We could write letters, phone staffers, and fax until the machines fell apart, but we would never get our seat at the table.

The senators understand that most people want a national health system and that an improved Medicare for All would include everybody and provide better health care at a lower cost. These facts mean nothing to most of them because they respond to only one standard tool of advocacy: money, and lots of it.

The people seated at the table represented the corporate interests: private health insurers and big business and those who support their agenda. The people whose voices were heard all represented organizations which pay huge sums of money to political campaigns. These interests profit greatly from the current health care industry and do not want changes that will hurt their large, personal pocketbooks.

And so, we have entered a new phase in the movement for health care as a human right: acts of civil disobedience. It is time to directly challenge corporate interests. History has shown that in order to gain human rights, we must be willing to speak out and risk arrest. We must engage in actions that expose corporate fraud and corruption. We must make our presence known.

And that is why the eight of us, knowledgeable health care advocates and providers, most of us parents, some of us grandparents, spoke out one-by-one at the Senate Finance Committee. And it is why we will continue to speak out and encourage others to do the same. Our voices must be strong enough to drown out the influence of corporate dollars.

Health care must become the civil rights movement of this decade. The opportunity is here. And we can create a single-payer national health care system.

Yes, we can.

Dr. Margaret Flowers is a pediatrician in Baltimore and co-chair of the Maryland chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP). Her statement was co-signed by Mark Dudzic, Labor Campaign for Single Payer; Russell Mokhiber, Single Payer Action; Carol Paris, M.D., PNHP; Katie Robbins, Healthcare-NOW!; Pat Salomon, M.D., PNHP; Adam Schneider, B’more Housing for All; and Kevin Zeese, ProsperityAgenda.us.


  1. Eliza Jane Dodd on May 8, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Thank You so much for what you did for ‘us’ .I feel very humbled ..My tears are flowing ….GOD BLESS ALL OF YOU !

  2. Teresa Renberg on May 9, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    Thank you so much for standing up for every man woman and child in America.

  3. Parker Duncan on May 10, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    I’m thinking…if ‘THEY’ wont invite us to THEIR table, can we BUILD our own — or DESTROY theirs?
    — What could be done to REMOVE Baucus from heading this farce of an effort (ie under SOME clause that accuses him of ‘abrogation of duty’ or something — for NOT fulfilling his mandate to ‘represent the people’)?
    And I am part of a burgeoning health professional student movement in CALIFORNIA, some of whom are hankering for a ‘summer of civil disobedience’!…

    • Carol on May 11, 2009 at 11:42 pm

      Come to Washington, do an internship with the Maryland Chapter of PNHP, there will be plenty to do this summer!

  4. Ian Thomas on May 10, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    Let us post, post, post on every site, blog and newspaper in America. We need to expand the circles of people viewing these articles.

  5. M. Darnit on May 11, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    I appreciate everything that those who protested did. Please know you had thousands of people cheering you on in their living rooms and screaming at the TV! I do everything I can as much as I can for the single payer movement. It was the most beautiful thing I saw that day, the well spoken words, the well-planned onslaught of questions for Sen. Baucus, and I was so moved that DOCTORS actually cared enough to risk it all for their patients. So many times people don’t believe doctors care, but PNHP.org and healthcare-now.org prove differently.
    Thank you to the “Baucus 8”, you are being cheered about, raved about, blogged about and the single payer world is abuzz with the wonderful chances you took for all Americans. You are heroes.

  6. M. Darnit on May 11, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    I totally agree, this should be the civil rights movement, right here, right now. Healthcare for all Americans, nothing more, nothing less. Everybody in, Nobody Out. Time for the biggest civil rights movement since the 60’s, time for a revolution!

  7. MOCKBADOC on May 22, 2009 at 12:36 am

    Interesting in the extreme that the same government, controlled by the people you supported, but which you now find is not able to be easily controlled itself, is the exact government you feel is best suited to providing responsible, ethical, affordable, and compassionate health care for you and your families. Think it’s hard to get them to listen to you now? Imagine trying to get them to reconsider a decision regarding your health when time and your life are on the line.

    Interesting, and a little funny.

  8. Jane on August 20, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    I beg to differ with your opinion. The last polls I saw, the majority of people were against a single payer system. I have asked every doctor I run across what they think and the above 8 are the only ones I know that think it would be a good thing. I had one doctor look me straight in the eye and tell me my son would have been dead at the age of 10 if that system was in place when he was diagnosed with cancer. Due to the protocol the doctor would have to follow. My son is alive and in college today. We had to pay for his treatment including flights out of town every six weeks. People from our church helped us with some of those flights. We could not get vouchers for food money while traveling because unemployment is a common thing for us so we save for the lean times and therefore had too much money in savings to qualify. People that don’t save could get vouchers though…sounds fair. Thank God for Ronald McDonald Houses, the only requirement to stay there is a deathly sick child. I never thought of having a child and expecting my fellow Americans to pay for him/her.
    You have more control over raising money than your age. Rationing will have to come into play when the system runs out of the rich peoples money, just like Canada and Britian. You can’t control if you are too young or too old for treatment. Medicare’s future does not look real bright financially. Just like the postal service and cash for clunkers. You are talking about people’s lives and taking choices away. There is always hope to raise money, we just donated a little money to a woman in our church that needs $64,000 for stem cell treatment. I doubt the single payer system would cough up that much money for her, and then the government paid doctors would probably not be allowed to assist her even if she was able to raise the money from already taxed too much people.
    How about TORT reform and interstate commerce, nothing like competition to bring down prices.