Students Absent in Health Care Debate

By Rozina Ali, Special to the Planet
Thursday October 29, 2009 - 09:19:00 AM

In 2007, Fatimah Simmons was attending rallies and fundraisers around New York City for the man she hoped would become her country’s next president. When the presidential campaign was in full swing, she spent hours every week encouraging people to register to vote. And in 2008—largely due to support like hers—President Obama was elected to office. 

Now in the Bay Area, Simmons is pursuing a degree at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, where she founded Blacks in Public Policy, a student organization focused on public policy issues, but her level of support for Obama has waned.  

Although interested in the health care debate, Simmons hasn’t felt motivation to attend rallies or sway the undecided public towards health care reform. She blames part of this apathy on the demands of graduate school, but part of it on the Obama administration as well. 

“I definitely think that America is ready [for health care reform]. But Obama ran a very expert campaign—the most well-run presidential campaign in history—that is not mirrored in what he’s done in health care thus far,” she said. “His leadership strategy has been speeches and mobilizing people through speeches. There has to be something more because the way we’re going is not a path for anything substantial to really happen.” 

Simmons’ indifference towards the health care debate resonates across others of her generation as well. In the Bay Area, the younger generation that had supported Obama’s candidacy with such fervor just a year ago is now silent about health care reform, Obama’s domestic priority. 

Instead, the debate is alive mainly within the confines of Capitol Hill, making the issue of health care reform decisively partisan. Three weeks ago, the Senate Finance Committee approved a $829 billion measure to revamp the health care system, a bill that is now being debated in Congress. In California, while Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer claimed their support for a public option, Republican representatives in Sacramento stand firmly opposed to such a measure.  

Since California would be the most economically affected state in the country if a public option is approved, such opposition in Sacramento means a tough fight for Obama in Washington, one, it seems, that he’s having to fight alone. 

But Andy Kelley, a fifth-year student at UC Berkeley and a member of Cal Democrats, believes that it is precisely the health care issue that students should be focused on, as it affects them more than they realize. 

“A lot of younger people don’t realize that we are the folks who are not going to have health care, because we do have it right now; we have it through school and we have it through our parents,” Kelley said. “That’s going to end. It takes a certain point to acknowledge that it’s not about this person who has breast cancer or this person whose treatment was denied to them. But I do think that students are realizing more and more that it’s our time to act.” 

Having witnessed his godson struggle through bronchitis without health care, Kelley is among the few in his generation who is actively concerned about the repercussions of no access to care.  

In addition to attending school, he works full time for Courage Campaign, a progressive political action organization that is currently advocating a public health option. Already, the group’s phone calls, letters and e-mails to Congress have proven effective as Sen. Feinstein agreed to support a public option. 

Yet, the youth’s inaction in the country’s most heated debate may be partially explained by the inherent complexities of health care reform.  

“There is a lot of lack of information, and a lot of misinformation. What is the public option and why are we getting fired up about it? A portion of the population has no clue; another portion gets fired up in town hall meetings,” Simmons said. 

For a generation that has struggled through protests against the war in Iraq, through the election of an unpopular president in 2004, and through an economic crisis that warranted a change in leadership, the hesitancy in action in the health care debate is not necessarily due to loss of hope in Obama, but due to lack of clear understanding of what to fight for.  

After Joe Wilson’s interruption of Obama’s health care speech to Congress, Facebook and Twitter were flooded with criticisms of Representative Wilson’s behavior, but there was little said to actually contradict Wilson’s views on health care reform. For a critical and aware younger generation, supporting a candidate was an easier task than supporting a malleable and complex issue. 

Yet, as Obama’s administration struggles to convince Congress and contradict falsities floating in the public, many wonder if the success of health care reform depends on the momentum of the youth just as the election of a seemingly unlikely candidate did. As students wait for Washington to provide a clear agenda, they are slowly beginning to take action.  

Simmons’ sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, plans to sponsor a forum on health care in San Francisco, while student groups are starting to rally people together on the issue.  

Both Simmons and Kelley agree a reform is necessary, but a lot of work needs to be done to get to that point. 

“Hope came to Washington and now we have to work with hope,” Kelley said. “We have to realize that just because we elected Obama doesn’t mean we’ve changed every single person in Congress.”