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Organizers Sergio Espana and Ben Palmquist discuss the findings of a new survey conducted by Healthcare Is a Human Right-Maryland

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Even as hundreds of thousands of Maryland residents sign up for health care through their state’s Affordable Care Act exchange, a new report has found widespread dissatisfaction with the current system and support for universal coverage. Published by Healthcare Is a Human Right Maryland, the report is largely based on the results of a disturbing but unsurprising nonscientific survey of 800 Maryland residents.

Now joining us in-studio to discuss this are two guests. We are joined by Sergio España. He’s the statewide organizer for Healthcare Is a Human Right Maryland.

And we’re also joined by Ben Palmquist. He’s the campaign manager for NESRI, the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.

Thank you both for joining us.



NOOR: So, Sergio, let’s start with you. You work across Maryland and you’ve talked to residents all over about their concerns, about the lack of access to health care. Something like 45 percent of the people that you talk to, they skipped out on seeing a doctor or getting treated because of the costs.

ESPAÑA: Residents themselves, people affected by this issue, went out and door knocked [incompr.] their neighbors, at health affairs, outside libraries in a wide range of places around the state. And we were able to get a sense of just how much support there really is for this. Apart from the fact that there’s an awful lot of need, as pointed out by the fact that 45 percent of folks surveyed felt that they had to forgo health care because of costs, we also found overwhelming support for universal health care. Seventy-five percent of the nearly 900 people that we surveyed in ten counties said that they would much rather see a publicly funded universal health care system, rather than the private tiered insurance system that we have right now.

So what we found in our conversations over the past year around the state was just how much people do understand what’s going on, despite the fact that we constantly get told that we’re very heavily misinformed and everything. You know what that bill is when you get it. You know what it’s like when a doctor has to refuse treatment that they know you need because of your lack of insurance or because you have insurance and they tell you it’s not feasible because it would cost them money, which is, of course, the whole point of health care is to make sure that they actually provide health care. In the case of insurance, their priority is on profit.

And so this really hits at, I think, kind of larger issues within this country about how we’ve lost sight about fundamental public goods, about fundamental human rights, and about the need for us to actually live in a civilization, in a society, in the wealthiest country in the world, that that involves taking time and community effort to invest in each other. And it ends up being a lot cheaper for everybody when you do this. Every state who has a form–every country that has a form of universal health care spends at least half of what we spend while covering everybody, while we still, in Maryland, have–even after the Affordable Care Act, we’re still going to have over 400,000 people uninsured, across the country over 30 million people uninsured. And it keeps–the system we have in place with the ACA exacerbates inequality, and if anything, it tries to justify it in some way, as if some people are worthy of gold coverage or silver coverage or bronze or nothing or Medicaid. And we know for a fact, as do Marylanders–and really, I think, people around the country are more and more comfortable with finally claiming it, that, like, people matter, people have inherent worth, and we should respect each other and we should spend the time to make sure that we can actually live healthy, productive lives.

NOOR: And, Ben, so you work on these issues across the country. And if you look for coverage, media coverage about health care around this country, all you’re going to find is Republican efforts to repeal the ACA. But are the findings of this report–you know, we talked about the lack of being able to get health care and afford health care even if you have insurance, for example. Sergio already touched upon this, but can you talk more about national trends on this very important topic?

PALMQUIST: Yeah, that’s right. There’s–what folks are experiencing here in Maryland, in terms of the health care crisis, folks are experiencing all over the country. So people are not able to go to the doctor, because they can’t afford deductibles or copayments on their insurance plans. They’re being pushed into medical debt, and in some cases losing their homes. State by state by state, it’s the same sort of stories, and every one of those stories really is a human tragedy.

But what’s also exciting is that we’re also seeing folks in states across the country really coming together, standing up for their human right to health care, and really organizing to do something about it. And so folks here in Maryland are coming together in the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign, and this is a campaign that actually launched in Vermont in 2008, and folks are taking this up from the East Coast to the West Coast, coming together, saying, actually health care is a human right and the market-based insurance system is denying our right to access the health care that we need in order to be healthy.

And so people are talking to their legislators, they’re holding, putting the health care system on trial at public events, and going out and talking to their neighbors and coworkers and friends and getting them involved.

And so the statistics are similar in Vermont. Ninety-five percent of people, I think, also belief–said that they believe that health care is a human right. And so we’re seeing this movement growing state-by-state. And so what folks in Maryland are doing here is part of something much bigger.

NOOR: And, Sergio, in the report you talk about the populations that are most at risk and that have the least access to health care. Who are those populations?

ESPAÑA: Yeah. So a large chunk of the people who are uninsured in Maryland are immigrant neighbors and family members. We’re talking about a fourth of the folks who are uninsured being undocumented immigrants. These were people who pay taxes, live in the community, shape the community, and hard-working members, and yet are denied health care, which really, when combined with so many of the other denials, what you’re seeing within the immigrant rights movement right now is what you’re seeing with, really–you’re also seeing with the black rights movement. It’s just there’s this growing sense of, like, we don’t have to be patient, we can’t risk this, you know, like, we’re human beings, we need to be acknowledged for what we are, not just as, like, contributing members of society in terms of taxes, but just as human beings, as family members, as members of the community. And that’s really one of the major frustrations with the lack of health care access is that it exacerbates, as I mentioned earlier, just these divisions amongst communities and makes us kind of fight amongst each other for scraps, thinking, like, oh, well, we can’t cover immigrants, you know, how will we do this, when in fact there’s more than enough money to do that. It’s just that–and we’re just squandering it.

Right now the way in which our health system is structured, it’s structured in such a way so as to people are paying premiums, pay taxes. But that money does not necessarily inherently go into actual health care. An awful lot of it goes into what the health insurance industry and medical industry at large calls the medical loss ratio, which is how much money is actually spent on health care, which, when compared from public systems, which cover–it’s about 2 percent that’s spent on overhead. And then you compare that to private insurance–you’re looking at closer to 20, 30 percent. That’s where a lot of money is just completely squandered that could go towards helping the community and reducing costs at the same time.

NOOR: And so, Ben, the survey found that 86 percent of people in Maryland feel that health care is a human right. And if you just watch and you turn on the news, you never hear about what happened in Vermont, where there was a grassroots campaign and universal health care is currently being implemented in a few years, and in a few years everyone will be covered. Talk about how Vermont is a model for struggles that are happening in Maryland and across the country.

PALMQUIST: That’s right. So, through the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign and organizing that people have been doing for a lot of years in Vermont, people are actually able to call upon their legislators and the governor to step up and pass the first bill in the country to create a universal health care system that will cover every resident in the state. And so this is not something that makes it into the news a lot, but it’s a really exciting step. And so it’s still–there’s still debates, because it’s still being implemented, and so that right now folks are working to make sure that the system is financed equitably, so that everybody’s supporting the system as they’re able to cut and to make sure that it’s a system that covers all care for all people, so that everybody gets the care they need. But even as that’s developing, it’s already a really inspiring model for those of us living everywhere else in the country to look to and say, actually, this isn’t pie-in-the-sky; this is real, we can do this.

ESPAÑA: Yeah. And I would definitely add emphasis on that in the sense of what Vermont, you know, in our efforts, really shows just how much people understand that it’s about grassroots involvement, it’s about individual agency. One of the questions that we asked in the survey and in the results we got was 65 percent of the nearly 900 people that we surveyed said that they felt they had no say in the health care system. So when you see that, along with how many people are uninsured, how many people are still struggling with medical debt, you start to see, like, how it’s not just about whether or not you have access to health care, but this is also about–it’s kind of a crisis of democracy. It’s like, what happens when there is overwhelming support and need and understanding and yet these issues that would be beneficial individually and on the community, at a state, at a national level, are very significant benefits for all of us. And it’s not seen as something that’s feasible when we know that it is. It hits at much larger problems of just, like, do we actually still have a democracy? And if we don’t, which now even several high-ranking economic institutions are agreeing, then that shouldn’t discourage us. That should really point out that, okay, so we have to rebuild this. And that means associating and relating to folks who are in power in the statehouse. We’ve been doing candidate forums, we’re going to be [incompr.] to folks in the coming session, but also really recognizing the importance of realizing that power is not just at a statehouse, power resides within our own neighborhoods, and we need to claim that again.

NOOR: And so talk about the challenges coming up, because as the session opens up, you’re going to have a Republican governor in office now who certainly would not support universal health care and is opposed to the increasing coverage that was a result of the Affordable Care Act. So talk about this new challenge and what the plans are, coming up, in the next weeks and months and years.

ESPAÑA: Yeah. So, I mean, this is definitely a long-term fight. We know [incompr.] campaign’s been off the ground for a little under two years. But we’ve been able to now grow a presence in eight counties, so nearly, you know, getting closer to half the state, where we have robust networks being built of people connecting with local health professionals, the people within local departments providing services, people who are struggling with health care access. But what we’ve been doing is been doing a lot of education. So that’s consisted of public speakouts; people putting the system on trial; as Ben was saying, giving testimony about what’s going on from all these different places; candidate forms. We’ve been doing rallies. We’ve been partnering with local efforts to keep–like in Frederick, keep the local assisted-living center that’s publicly owned, to keep it public, and finding these–there’s all these different struggles that are going on around the state where people understand how important it is to not only hold on to what we’ve got, but expand on it.

So in the coming year, what we’re focusing on is now that we’ve–you know, we’re continuing to grow our network, but we’re also really focusing right now on just massive public education and setting up that groundwork to start seeing if we can work on a legislative angle in the coming year. But we have no illusions that it’s going to be an issue of whether or not we’re going to find the right political champion. This is really about connecting with other folks who were engaged in other grassroots efforts, not just around health care, but around housing, discrimination, racism, and coming together and realize that we can’t just be on the defensive. We have to start pointing out, like, what are systems that we can be pushing for that would address a lot of our concerns at the same time and having a shared platform?

So we don’t see ourselves as being, like, the only folks that are going to figure out how this works. At all. Like, we’re very intentional about pointing out, like, we think that health care is something worth considering as a way to help empower us. And we want to work alongside several other organizations doing the same thing. So that’s–in the coming year, now that we’ve kind of built our own network, we’re trying to figure out how to be useful and connect with other struggles that are going on.

NOOR: Well, I want to thank you both for joining us.

ESPAÑA: Thank you very much.

PALMQUIST: Thank you.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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