Photo courtesy of Amanda Malik.
“The question of class and worker status is a deeper one than we can deal with in a single article or action, but it’s one that physicians in particular need to grapple with if they value social justice.”
-Karim Sariahmed, SNaHP member
For SNaHP’s #TreatNotTrick Philadelphia action, a group of ten people gathered at City Hall. They were mostly medical students with SNaHP, joined by two members of Put People First! PA (PPF-PA) and another local activist.
Our small action became less about projecting something for the public and more of an intimate opportunity to nourish ourselves so we could step into our power together. We heard a personal story from Amanda Malik, a third year at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, about the perverse way that time spent haggling over patients with insurance companies marks the urgency of providing basic care. We heard from Rebecca Lin, a 1st year at Lewis Katz School of Medicine (LKSOM) who framed the policy issue by describing the absolute numbers of uninsured people (24 million), and the number of preventable deaths due to uninsurance every year (45,000, the same number killed by kidney disease).
I shared some of the history of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, a working class group that worked to overcome racism and segregation in their community to fight poverty, an effort whose legacy and theory of change lives on through PPF-PA’s campaign to make healthcare a human right in Pennsylvania. It also shines through in the KWRU song “Went Down to the Rich Man’s House,” which we sang together during the action.
The question of class and worker status is a deeper one than we can deal with in a single article or action, but it’s one that physicians in particular need to grapple with if they value social justice. Still, singing this song gave life to the idea that part of what unites healthcare workers with the broader anti-poverty and anti-austerity movements (the source of power able to make the political lift of passing single payer and other significantly redistributive legislation, in my opinion) is our shared ownership of healthcare work.
Med students, nurses, physicians, physical therapists, physicians’ assistants, lab technicians, medical assistants, security guards, pharmacists, environmental service workers, ambulance drivers, and patients all share a powerful stake in winning a system that works for all of us. We are not yet organized enough to harness all of the latent power in this idea that our work belongs to all of us, and not to the insurance executives like CEO of Independence Blue Cross (IBX) Daniel Hilferty, who extract its value. However, part of our encounter last night made it clear that we already have some power.
We were wearing Halloween costumes. Emily Kirchner, a fourth year and a lead organizer for the action, was wearing a dinosaur mask. Tony Spadaro, a third year at Penn Med was wearing a banana suit and holding a paper bag that said “Private Insurance is Bananas.” I shaved my head and drew a fake beard on my face to look more like Dr. Hugo Strange from Batman. We had a good time, and we sang confidently as we marched to the IBX headquarters, just four blocks away from our gathering at City Hall.
When we arrived, we were met by IBX’s head of security, and civil affairs police officers on bikes were lined up in front of the building. We were expecting them to be there, so we just went ahead and lit our candles as Shalonda Cook, another first year from LKSOM, lead us in a vigil to honor the struggle of people fighting for their lives in our broken healthcare system. Then we shared some reflections before heading home.
While doing this we realized that the security force flanking our vigil actually outnumbered us. There are two crucial questions we need to be asking: What are they protecting, and whom are they protecting it from? I think the biggest threat to them is a movement of working and dispossessed people poised to isolate them from hospitals, insurance departments, welfare offices, and other public institutions whose cooperation they take for granted.
This Thursday, November 3rd, PPF-PA will be in the same place to fight back against the outrageous ACA premium increases recently approved for IBX and other insurance companies by the PA Insurance Department. I think the stories shared there will give us some clarity as to who “we” are, and what we are up against in the fight to abolish insurance profiteering and install single payer.
Karim Sariahmed is a second-year medical student at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. In addition to supporting the growth of Temple Med’s SNaHP chapter, he is a member of Put People First! PA. This is the community in Philadelphia that teaches him how to organize alongside many other developing organizers from various healthcare professions and healing traditions. You can read his other work at in-Training and the PPF-PA blog. He tweets @sariahmed.