“Low wages, no benefits, dangerous work. What is happening here is representative of what is happening across this nation.”
Photo: Jaclyn Higgs/National Nurses United
Day in and day out, American nurses see the damaging fallout of a for-profit healthcare system. That’s why nurses have long been at the forefront of the fight for healthcare justice. Last week, that fight took them to the headquarters of PhRMA, the trade group that represents pharmaceutical industry companies. Members of National Nurses United, along with other Medicare for All advocates, used bandaids to plaster PhRMA’s walls with the GoFundMe pages of patients who’ve turned to crowdfunding to cover their healthcare expenses. The protest came just one day before Congress held its first-ever Medicare for All hearing. Registered nurses and NNU Presidents Jean Ross, Deborah Burger, and Zenei Cortez told Inequality.org about their spotlight on Big Pharma and their vision for a just healthcare system.
Tell us about Monday’s action. What’s the significance behind the band-aids and the GoFundMe pages?
One third of all GoFundMe accounts are set up to help people pay for the cost of medical treatment. As activist Ady Barkan said in his testimony to the Rules Committee, GoFundMe is a terrible substitute for an actual healthcare system. The band-aids represent the fact that GoFundMe is a poor solution to our healthcare crisis — it’s a band-aid solution. People shouldn’t have to crowdfund for their health care. We wanted PhRMA to have to face firsthand the toll their greed takes on Americans across our country. When you search GoFundMe and the word “insulin” you get over 600 hits — insulin alone. Medicare for All would give our country the ability to negotiate with the pharmaceutical industry (something currently forbidden by law) and put the American people in a position of power in that negotiation for the first time ever.
Why choose to target PhRMA? What impact does the organization have on your work, and the American healthcare system?
Pharmaceutical corporations are a major contributor to the health care crisis through price gouging, which makes prescription drugs unaffordable to tens of millions of people. Nurses see the fallout everyday — patients cutting pills in half, patients coming into the hospital with elevated blood glucose levels because they can’t afford the insulin they need to control their diabetes, parents who can’t afford the co-pays for medications for their children to continue treatment for leukemia and other illnesses, who face becoming homeless or giving up other basics to pay for the care for their child.
Pharma conglomerates are among the richest global mega corporations, spending enormous sums on lobbying and influence peddling to block legislation to control pricing practices, win favorable global trade deals, manipulate patent protections, bribing doctors to prescribe their expensive brand name drugs while blocking generic alternatives, and profiting off publicly funded research and development typically done at publicly funded universities.
Pharma is also a major player in the opposition to Medicare for All — they are a charter member of the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, the corporate PAC organized specifically to block Medicare for All.
What is it like, as a nurse, to look through those GoFundMe campaigns? Were there any in particular that struck a nerve?
The GoFundMe campaigns show you a photo—of a grandma holding a newborn baby, or a little 10-year-old girl in a pink shirt. The campaign story is often written by someone who loves that patient as much as it’s possible to experience love. Looking through those campaigns is familiar to nurses because our patients aren’t just statistics to us; they’re actual people. We know their names, and we hold their hands. We wipe away their tears — and the tears of their partners and parents and children. So for nurses, all of these stories strike a nerve. Absolutely all of them. These are real people — who are suffering and dying unnecessarily, and nurses see every day how that suffering ripples out to impact everyone who loves a patient. The cruelty of this system is immoral; health care should be a right, not just a privilege for those who can afford it.
Several other labor organizations joined in the action on Monday. Why is Medicare for All a labor issue?
Every single union in this country faces healthcare takeaways at the bargaining table. The UFCW grocery store strike, the wave of teachers strikes, all faced massive takeaways, increases in co-pays, deductibles, co-insurance, drugs etc. When unions fight for Medicare for All they are not only fighting to ensure all workers, whether union members or not, have healthcare, they are also taking a major take away off the table before bargaining even begins. If they don’t have to bargain over healthcare, they can bargain for actual raises and more for their members. Many workers in this country, even in unions that achieve pay increases, still take home less pay year after year rather than more when you factor in the increased cost sharing passed on to them by their employers on their health insurance costs.
How would Medicare for All impact your work, and the care you’re able to provide for patients?
In the Medicare for All Congressional hearing on Tuesday, Dr. Farzon Nahvi talked about how our current system makes him feel like he is working with one hand tied behind his back. That perfectly summed up what it feels like for registered nurses when what our extensive training tells us to do for our patients becomes impossible simply for financial reasons. Let’s be clear that even when patients do have health insurance, their co-pays, premiums and deductibles are often so sky high that the bills become a form of care denial. Medicare for All would impact our work — by allowing us to do our work. Period. We’re here to provide lifesaving care for our patients, and our patients should never have to figure out how to delay or avoid that care just because they can’t afford it.
How would you like to respond to skeptics who insist Medicare for All is too ambitious, too expensive, or not the right solution?
Medicare for All is the only solution to the healthcare crisis. It is the only solution that will actually save money while providing care to everyone, free at the point of service. We pay more for healthcare than any other industrialized nation and we have worse health outcomes. Small solutions do not fix crises of this proportion — it will take ambitious, bold solutions. Disruption of the existing for-profit system is necessary in order to achieve a rational, affordable, sustainable system that provides care to every person regardless of their ability to pay.
Nurses are on the front lines of the battle for healthcare justice, and see some of the most damaging fallout from our for-profit healthcare system. What do you wish more people knew about our healthcare crisis?
We wish everyone knew the heartbreaking stories of our patients who are suffering and too often dying from an inability to afford their healthcare, like the stories told in the Rules Committee hearing of the young woman who overdosed on fish antibiotics because she couldn’t afford a doctor visit to get a prescription, let alone to afford to fill it, but was desperate to be well enough to go to a job interview; like the young woman with appendicitis who asked the ER doctor if she could be treated with just antibiotics and when he said no, she left the ER because she couldn’t afford surgery; critically ill heart patients pulled off of CT scans because the insurance wouldn’t cover the test; breathing machines denied to patients with ALS. We think most people know someone who has a story like this and that is why they are joining our movement in droves. It’s going to take a movement to hold our elected officials accountable and fend off the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations who will stop at nothing to protect their profits.
What’s been the most energizing or motivating aspect of working on this campaign?
Everything. Every day we see nurses, neighbors and friends take on roles outside of their comfort level, hosting barnstorms, phone banking, knocking on doors and calling their legislators; all to make the case for Medicare for All. We have worked with thousands and thousands of volunteers who give up their free time — what precious time they have between multiple jobs and caring for their children and loved ones — to work on this campaign. They join conference calls at 7pm on weeknights and volunteer at a rate of 80 to 90 percent to lead canvasses on the weekends. We have an entire team of volunteers who do nothing but data entry for us from the data collected at the canvasses. The willingness of people to drop everything and work with nurses on the campaign for Medicare for All restores our faith in humanity.
Can you break down the idea of healthcare justice? What does a just healthcare system look like to you?
Healthcare justice is based on the following bedrock principles:
- Real universal coverage, guaranteed care for all, no exceptions, health care as a human right.
- No financial barriers to care. No bankruptcies caused by unpayable medical bills, no one choosing to not get cancer care, or fill prescriptions, or go to the doctor when sick, or get preventive care, or needed medical treatment, due to out of pocket costs. No one forced to decide between caring for a sick child or paying their bills.
- Full, comprehensive coverage for all health care needs — hospital, doctor visits, dental care, vision, audiology, maternal care, mental health, reproductive services, long term care, prescription medications, physical therapy, etc.
- No insurance bureaucracy imposing administration barriers and denials of care simply to inflate their profits.
- Real patient choice – no narrow networks that restrict what doctors, hospitals, clinics, and other medical care you need, no surprise medical bills.
- An end to all health disparities based on race, gender, national origin, ethnicity, age, immigration status, sexual orientation, income and other socio-economic status, or where you live.
- An end to corporate medical practices that discriminate against low-income people and communities of color – including where hospitals are built, where they shut down, what patients are cherry picked or excluded for coverage and more.
- A universal standard of quality care for all including proper staffing of all medical professionals, including registered nurses; adequate resources to assure patients get the appropriate care they need; no displacement of professional medical staff or overriding of medical staff professional judgement for technology.