“We will not stop. There is only one outcome.”
-Diane Nash, coordinator of the Freedom Rides and student leader of the Nashville sit-in movement
As a third year medical student, my thoughts are never far from the patients I leave in the hospital at the end of each day. The bloodwork I need to check on, the records I need to request, how someone is doing on a new medicine. Even now, as I write this, I am remembering one shift a few weeks ago. The resident flipped open a chart and narrated her thought process: “The first thing you do is check insurance. It says ‘self-pay’ so there’s not much we can do.”
I wish this was the first time I had heard that statement. It wasn’t.
With these words still ringing in my ears, on Saturday, March 5th, I descended upon Nashville, Tennessee, with 170 students from 47 schools in 23 states. Those who were among us were future doctors, public health professionals, medical researchers, and even a nurse-midwife. We gathered in Music City for the 5th annual Students for a National Health Program (SNaHP) Summit, held on the medical campus of Vanderbilt University.
SNaHP membership has grown exponentially since the inaugural student summit five years ago, when a handful of students filled a single conference room. Today, the organization has 51 chapters at universities across the country. My colleagues take time away from grueling coursework and ungodly call schedules to meet every spring and work on enacting a single payer, universal health insurance program, one of the pressing civil rights issues of our time.
In fact, the organizers constructed this year’s summit around that very theme: “New Frontiers for the Civil Rights Movement.” The keynote address, given by Dr. Stephen Raffanti, drew connections from HIV/AIDS activism in the 1980s and 1990s to our work fighting for single payer today. Students led sessions on civil disobedience, engaging politicians on the campaign trail, and holding lobby visits with our elected representatives. We learned how to share stories and how to build our movement and train each other.
We learned how to share stories of collective struggle and how to work with one another to build a movement that connects single payer to broader social justice efforts. SNaHP members were among the thousands of medical students who took to the streets in 2015 as part of the White Coat Die-In, protesting police brutality and claiming racism as a public health issue. SNaHP members were counted among the hundreds who rallied and held vigils last October during the #Ten One: Medicare for All Day of Action for the tens of thousands of people who will die each year because they lack health insurance.
This year, the stakes are higher than ever before for our work. One of the Democratic candidates for the presidency supports a single payer, national health insurance program for economic and moral reasons. The other defames it as a pie in the sky impossibility while accepting money from corporations that grow rich off our fragmented for-profit healthcare system. The Republican candidates agree that repealing Obamacare is a priority, because pre-existing conditions should disqualify you from coverage and the thousands of newly-insured individuals who are receiving health care for the first time should go back to ignoring their back pains and strange lumps.
We went to Nashville because we have a lot of work to do. And like Diane Nash, ACT-UP, and the innumerable activists who came before us in America’s civil rights movements, we will not stop until universal single payer healthcare is won.
In the weeks since our conference, SNaHP members have protested bigotry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, pledged to engage political candidates about healthcare reform, developed a plan for getting single payer advocates onto state medical boards, and worked towards planning an action at the Democratic National Convention.
Give us a few more weeks, a few more months, a few more years and I’m hoping that as a resident I won’t have say, “The first thing you do is check insurance.”
Emily Kirchner is a third year medical student at Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is a member of SNaHP’s media team and political advocacy team. You can read more of her work at in-Training and The Billfold.