Public Comment

First Person: Still a Mad as Hell Doc for Single Payer Health Care

By Mark Sapir, M.D., MPH
Thursday November 05, 2009 - 08:50:00 AM

I guess I haven’t held up my end of the bargain with the readers of the Berkeley Planet. A few Planet readers have approached me to ask why I didn’t finish writing my cross-country travelogue. So what happened, they wanted to know, when you got to Washington, D.C.?  

Please accept my apologies. 

Let me start back at the tour itself. I’ve reviewed the compendium of individual TV appearances we made in local venues from Seattle to Washington. The amount of dust we kicked up—over a million citings on Google, many dozens of radio and TV appearances and interviews and print-media articles—is not to be sneezed at. We made a splash all across the United States. When I told a nurse at work that, unfortunately, we got only local news coverage in all those cities and not national media attention, she claimed I was wrong. She saw us out in front of the White House on a national Fox News feed. Fox?  

Here’s my final report on the tour. Despite many thousands of e-mails and phone calls, the White House did not invite us in. Not only weren’t we invited to share with the President what thousands of people asked us to report about—their crying need for a national health insurance program, Medicare for All—but we also weren’t invited to sit down with Health Secretary Sibelius. And we weren’t invited to some secret rendezvous, like the health insurance and pharmaceuticals people. Not even with the most inconsequential of underlings. The only interaction that I remember with the White House went like this: 

After our energized rally in front of the White House on September 30 at 4–6 p.m. (where our usual Mad as Hell show was supplemented by the regional director of the AFL-CIO, the Raging Grannies, a grassroots African-American D.C. leader and the foot-stomping charismatic Dennis Kucinich, who seemed to appear on stage out of the sky) had run its course, a group of 20 or so docs and others walked over to the White House fence and did some “single payer” chanting and singing. After about 30 minutes, the rally crowd having dispersed, this small group began to head out for the evening, and a woman, whom I didn’t know, put one of the single-payer symbolic white ribbons on top of the fence. A military guard 30 yards off within the White House grounds saw this brazen act of rebellion and shouted “take that down.” And that was the extent of the Mad as Hell Doctors interaction with the Obama White House—at least this time around.  

The next morning Congressman Kucinich sponsored a press conference for us at the House Office Building and afterward read a personal commendation for our efforts into the Congressional Record. At 10 a.m. he did a little rant for single payer and HR 676 on the House floor, with only one or two other Congresspeople in attendance  

Maybe this is anticlimactic? Here’s more.  

As we went across the country, at each of 40 stops and right there in front of the White House, we, the docs, each gave three minutes of “Why I’m Mad as Hell.” These were very moving presentations (as well as full of meaty facts), no matter how many times I heard and participated in them, because after some music and a question-and-answer period, the last 20 minutes or so of each gathering involved testimony from audience members about why they are mad as hell, getting screwed to the wall or driven to destitution, suffering or death by the non-health-care system. These stories were moving, riveting, sometimes amusing but more often heart-wrenching. (They have all been posted on YouTube via the web site).  

My own three minutes at first focused on the fact that we spend twice as much as any other country on health care yet rank 37th on the World Health Organization’s composite ranking of health outcomes, an iniquity caused by Wall Street’s need to keep profits high. That talk fairly soon transformed itself into something more when I mentioned Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote about health care, which I first saw on the back of the Single Payer Now T-shirt: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” I was urged to always make this my main point and was placed last speaker among the docs.  

And so I did, pointing out that King recognized that health care is a civil rights issue and that health care and health (as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the UN Charter) are human rights. We all recognize that Congress is in the pockets of those who place their profits before our health and that we cannot rely upon pressuring and petitioning Congress with e-mails, phone calls and petitions, but we have to heed King’s unfulfilled dream of equal quality health care.  

We have to rebuild a civil rights movement from coast to coast that will not take no for an answer and will utilize the same tactics that won civil rights for African-Americans in the ’60s. When I said those things, each time, the docs and the crowds cheered louder. I never failed to see people in these audiences—granted they were not huge throngs but they were audiences of varied types, ages, classes and hues, averaging about 200 people—rise to their feet and start shouting and cheering in affirmation of these words.  

There is a huge amount of anger and discontent throughout the land. It’s about health care, but obviously about so much more. I don’t know how we will rebuild a national civil rights movement in this country out of that discontent and under the present conditions of crisis, decay and corruption.  

I don’t know how we will learn to meld the civil right of health care to other civil rights: those of the undocumented who are sustaining such serious attacks; the people being driven from their homes; the 2.3 million people in prison who are deprived of an opportunity for real re-integration and education; the right to a job for those tens of millions of “requisite” unemployed and underemployed deprived sustenance by a finance system whose wealth accumulation continues, based upon vulturism, cheating, speculation and human suffering (and no longer even on industrial production); or to the rights of people denied because of their sexual identity; the right to end a pregnancy; the right to clean air, clean water, food and a sustainable habitat for our species and others. I don’t know how we build a movement upon the foundational ideas of democracy in a society that attacks those rights, changing the idea of democracy into a uniquely socialist principle (and the Right is not wrong when they imply that justice and democracy are now a socialist plot, because democracy and finance capitalism seem daily less and less compatible even as artifice). And yet, I don’t think we are going to see much positive change in our nation without all this coming together into a social movement, without class being discussed and the working class being valued and trained to lead itself out of this morass.  

Even though I have no satisfying answers, the Mad as Hell Docs tour for single payer provided me with more hope than I expected. It fortified my belief that the grassroots surge that helped Obama win the White House is just waiting out there to be reconstituted as an independent, largely non-electoral civil-rights movement to achieve justice for all. And I’ll let a goodbye note explain why I am more hopeful. A young woman, perhaps 30 years old, left it on a kitchen table for Dr. Gene Uphoff and myself after we spent the night at her family’s home in Chicago (her dad is an internist in practice and a single-payer supporter). She wrote regarding the Mad as Hell Tour, “It is so important for your message and spirit to be heard at this time, especially by the younger generations who grew up in the cynical ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Your stories, songs, insight and compassion teach me, and can teach many others, that social movement is not copyrighted by the Obama Campaign—or any other specific movement in time. And that it is, rather, an expression of our intrinsic human spirit when we believe in and strive for freedom, peace, equality and justice. Best of wishes and safe travels.” As Corey suggests, I think it’s up to all of us to collectivize our own power. So what do you think?