Universal Health for All: Mailman and Med Students Lobby for the New York Health Bill

by Jordan Mueller in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences, MPH ’16

“Who says size doesn’t matter?” So said the advertisement on the 1 train, as I lurched away from 168th street and headed home after a health economics class. It continued, “Lower prices, larger network.”

It’s not the sexual innuendo of the health insurance ad that bothered me, it’s the fact that private, for-profit health insurance companies like this one even exist. These corporations hold a kind of power that is a uniquely American phenomenon, and I believe they are a primary reason for the poor return on investment in American healthcare.

Studying health policy, I spend a lot of time examining the American healthcare system: where it excels, where it falls short, and where our policies and paradigms are so uncommon compared to the rest of the world that I wonder if they make any sense at all. I believe that a single-payer, universal, government sponsored health insurance system is the most equitable and efficient form of healthcare service for a social democracy like the United States of America. It turns out a lot of other people do, too.
Two student groups at Columbia University share the ambition for a single payer plan: Physicians for a National Health Program and Students for a National Health Program. Physicians for a National Health Program is comprised of physicians, medical students, and other single payer proponents that want to practice medicine—rather than spending their time negotiating with insurance companies. They are a strong advocacy group that uses their social standing and clinical prowess to promote this peculiarly unpopular idea. Students for a National Health Program is essentially a group of people with similar ideals, but without the MD title. When I heard of meetings being held for these groups during my first semester, I jumped at the chance to attend.
These groups discuss the way things are, the way things could be, and why we can’t seem to have a meaningful conversation about universal health coverage in this country. But meetings and hand wringing only go so far.

So we decided to rent a van and drive to Albany, New York.

The New York Health Bill is a blueprint for a state-sponsored, single payer healthcare plan with universal coverage. It’s similar to Canada’s universal single payer system, but in New York State. Think Medicare for everyone. The fact that people are even talking about this bill is a huge leap. Various New York State chapters of the Physicians for a National Health Program decided to put this talk into action and lobby the state assembly in support of the New York Health Bill.

It was a busy day and we were excited to talk with decision makers. However, to our chagrin, we had to meet almost exclusively with aides and staffers instead of the politicians who had promised us meetings. Frustrated, but undeterred, we made the most of our face time with the people who were paid to inform policy makers on the voices of their constituency. We presented our case, and hoped that they would pass along our vision.

Afterwards, we attended a lunchtime press conference and listened to white coat clad advocates testify to the superiority of a single payer system. The medical students shared their reasons for supporting an equitable, government sponsored health insurance plan. Ross Kristal, a fourth year medical student at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told me, “It’s impossible to practice truly patient-centered medicine when you have to worry about the patient’s ability to pay or the cost to the hospital if they can’t pay. This bill has the potential to solve that problem for New York.”
PNHP Advocacy Day
Andrew Smith, an MPH candidate in Sociomedical Sciences, approached the issue from a health policy perspective, “There are many examples of how current system doesn’t serve those who need it most.  But if we give everyone access to basic medical services, we can solve a lot of the inefficiencies we have in our health system.”

Senator Bill Perkins, a key sponsor of the bill, led a rallying cry of “Our health is our wealth!” as the press conference was winding down. It quickly escalated into a call-and-response from the crowd, and gave the gathering of health activists an emphatic finish.

With high spirits, we took to the halls of the legislative building once again to meet with red and blue policy makers, hoping to find some purple middle ground. Unfortunately we were met with mostly scripted responses that fit the bipartisan storyline.

We ended the day at a local pub (with a designated driver for the trip home, of course), feeling satisfied with the words we spoke and the hands we shook. We were drinking cold beers and proposing toasts with a gratifying feeling of accomplishment. We spent the whole day fighting for our beliefs, and it felt good to relax and get to know other like-minded advocates from around the state.

Whatever difference we made, or whatever direction America goes in delivering health to its people, I know that we took steps for America to finally put patients before profits. Innumerable human rights are violated around the world every day, and movements to right these wrongs are not actualized overnight. But the work must be done—even if it seems like it might take forever to reach the goal.

Additional coverage of the event at: The Legislative Gazette


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