Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The "Occupy" Movement and Healthcare

For the last several months, I have been actively supporting the now worldwide "Occupy" movement that has swept the world following the initiation of the famous "Occupy Wall Street" action in New York City. Here in Santa Fe, New Mexico, my wife and I have taken part in marches, rallies, protests and teach-ins, and the "Occupy Santa Fe" encampment continues near downtown.

Although the issues broached by "Occupiers" throughout the country are seemingly disparate and multifaceted, I believe it is only through the communication of these different voices and concerns that central themes (and possible demands) can eventually be distilled.

As a nurse and healthcare professional, I have seen the face of the healthcare system up close, and it is (still) quite broken. With innumerable for-profit insurance companies dictating what doctors can and cannot do, and tens of millions of Americans living completely without health insurance, the system eschews the notion of universal coverage and leaves millions in the proverbial dust. And since almost every industrialized country in the world has some form of universal coverage, the United States lags far behind, not only in this respect, but also in infant mortality and other important markers of health and well-being of the citizenry at large. It is a shameful state of affairs.

Just today on National Public Radio, I heard a report quoting Republican candidate Ron Paul as he railed against the notion of universal coverage. When asked if an uninsured 30-year-old with a catastrophic illness should receive expensive care in order to save his life, Paul intimated that there are other ways for these sorts of people to be cared for (such as churches and neighbors). He stated, "That's what freedom is all about---taking your own risks." Although he wouldn't directly say that society should just allow this individual to die, some members of the audience loudly proclaimed that, indeed, this uninsured American's care should not be paid for and he should be allowed to meet his (uninsured) fate. A shocking notion, especially since doctors (and Ron Paul is himself an M.D.) take an oath to "do no harm". (I have always wondered about the relative similarity between the words "Hippocratic" and "hypocritical".)

When it comes to the "Occupy" movement, my sense is that a more fair distribution of wealth, corporate responsibility (in terms of taxes, etc), economic justice (an admittedly broad and relatively ill-defined phrase), jobs, the end of war, and the initiation of broader protections (such as universal health coverage) are some of the mainstays of the movement's demands.

As autocracies around the world crumble before our eyes, it was only a matter of time until such a popular people's movement erupted from its latent slumber here in the U.S.. People can only take so much, and when the number of uninsured Americans topped 52 million just last year (40% higher than in 2001), there was no reason for Americans to not decide to speak out and demand change. And if you couple the nationwide jobless numbers with the numbers of uninsured citizens (let alone the list of companies---like Wal-Mart---who are jettisoning their healthcare coverage), the recipe for popular unrest only grows.

Rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease are ballooning in this country, and childhood obesity and chronic illness are equally on the rise. As Americans get sicker and fatter, the nation's largest employers are cutting their healthcare coverage and leaving millions of American workers (and their families) in the lurch.

Meanwhile, the American right proclaims that "Occupiers" are dirty hippies, unemployed and looking for a handout. From my perspective, this is both unenlightened thinking and plain ignorant hyperbole. I have marched and rallied with retired schoolteachers, nurses, housepainters, unemployed laborers, and gainfully employed citizens from multiple sectors of society. Yes, some "Occupiers" are unemployed, but every unemployed protester I have spoken with simply wants a job and benefits for them and their family, and they're willing to pay taxes to get what they want. (They just want wealthy Americans and American corporations to pay their fair share.)

The noise and perceived "inconvenience" of massive protests will, in my opinion, continue as the movement galvanizes a broader spectrum of Americans and gains clarity as it works internally to crystallize its main messages. And as the protests continue, those 50 million Americans still languish without health insurance, millions more look for work that cannot be found, and the corporate and political powers that be bide their time in hopes that the restless citizenry will fall back into a television-induced slumber. Aside from a nationwide campaign to taint drinking water with Ambien or Lunesta in hopes of a sleepier and more ignorant nation, the chances of this movement simply being lulled into complacency is more remote than Wal-Mart offering its workers the benefits they deserve.

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