The were two big winners at the recent “Town-Hall” health care meeting held in the North Bronx neighborhood of Parkchester on Tuesday August 17th – the lunatic right and the private health insurance industry. These victories came despite the fact that the vast majority of those lined up to participate in the meeting supported either a single-payer system or a public option. Most came away disappointed. I got kicked out. More on this later.
The right-wing won this contest without even participating in it. Sure there was one woman with a “Freedom Isn’t Free Shirt,” but there were certainly none of the antics that have come to typify other town-halls. Not even one “Death Panel” sign. How then did the right-wing win? Representative Joseph Crowley (D.), the organizer of the event, insured this by closing off all the spaces for public discussion. Instead of a town-hall, where constituents ask questions or make speeches publicly from the floor, Crowley was only willing to meet people one-on-one in “private” meetings. Barricades on both sides of the Metropolitan Oval Park sectioned off the crowd. A slew of private security guards and NYPD officers enforced the distance. The right-wing tactics had worked. Crowley was too scared to hold an open meeting.
Before I left for the meeting I did a quick search to see who I was dealing with. Crowley has certainly dipped into the health industry pot for campaign funding. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that he received $5,000 contributions from Pfizer, Abbott Technologies (a pharmaceutical company) and the private health insurance company Blue Cross/Blue Shield. No surprise then that Crowley has avoided the single-payer bill in the House (HR 676) and has provided only tepid support for the public option in the House Bill. The literature he distributed makes no mention of a public option. It contains only vague claims about increased regulation and cost reduction.
Now to my story. For the last two years I have been organizing in support of single-payer health care. With more than 45 million people without insurance, millions more underinsured and nearly 20,000 deaths from treatable conditions, the health care system is clearly broken. The responsible party is the private health insurance industry. Single-payer, or the National Health Insurance Act, would make private health insurance companies illegal and establish the Federal Government as the single-payer. As a result, every person in the country would be guaranteed access to health care regardless of their ability to pay.
As an organizer, this has been a complicated campaign. Everyone knows the health care system is a wreck. Yet few understand how this failed system continues to perpetuate itself through advertising, monopolizing market-share and campaign contributions. The language of reform has also served to confuse. The House health care bill and President Barack Obama continually talk about a “public-option” and “universal health care.” Many, including a person ahead of me on line, conflate these terms with single-payer. There is, in fact, no relation between them. The public-option plan is pitched as operating in “competition” with private plans through a health insurance exchange– a schemed dreamed up by the right-wing Heritage Foundation. There is nothing universal about the public-option. It is just another maneuver to defend an inefficient and exploitative private health insurance industry.
While on line, I met a blogger, Eve NYC, from the Daily KOS who offered to video tape my talk with Crowley. She knew that my confronting the senator with his campaign contributions might be the high point of the otherwise vanilla one-on-one meetings. I told Crowley’s assistants that I wanted my session with the Senator taped by Eve. They refused, claiming that the press was not allowed to enter, that the public park was an extension of Rep. Crowley’s office. I argued that this was ridiculous, that it was a public park and that I, and the journalist, had 1st Amendment rights that could not be suspended by his edict. I was immediately descended upon by a team of aides and security guards. I demanded to see Crowley directly and was eventually allowed to enter.
Crowley and I engaged in a borderline juvenile back-and-forth where he claimed his folding chair in the park was his office. I went with the obvious – water fountains, dog-walkers, tweeting birds, benches – it was a public park. And he was a public official who should be accustomed, if not willing, to be video taped. What did he have to hide? After a few heated words of outrage, I was surrounded by security and decided to head off to the mini-stardom which awaited me back on the line.
My conflict with Crowley demonstrates that single-payer activists and even democratic socialists have roles to play in the Town Hall meetings. We should first make sure that they are really democratic; that public officials are not hiding behind barricades, but are forced to face the public. We also have an important educational role to play – patiently explaining the universal benefits offered by single-payer healthcare. Finally, we should expose both Democrats and Republicans for what many of them really are – paid spokespeople for pharmaceutical companies and private health insurers. The website, OpenSecrets.org, offers all the resources you need. Educate, agitate and organize. Timeless injunctions that will serve you well at any town hall meeting, or even, at a town hall charade.