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A protester is arrested by police at the Los Angeles offices of Cigna, a major U.S. health insurer.(Photo by:Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images )

Sitting in for Healthcare

A new group takes the fight for a single-payer system directly to insurers—and politicians.

BY Diana Novak

Since September 29, when Mobilization for Health Care for All organized its first sit-in at health insurer Aetna’s New York City offices, more than 147 activists with the group have been arrested in 24 actions around the country. Protesters, opposed to any healthcare reform short of a national single-payer system, have also occupied both Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office in San Francisco and Senator Joe Lieberman’s office on Capitol Hill.

Mobilization, a two-month-old conglomeration of healthcare action groups, organized the protests as part of a campaign for what it calls “Medicare for All.” Groups in each city work with the new umbrella organization to set up national days for civil disobedience. Since the Aetna sit-in in New York, thousands of protesters have joined the movement, refusing to allow insurance companies to continue to profit by denying care. Chanting “Patients, not profits,” they have entered insurance headquarters and blocked the doors, leaving only when either the company grants coverage of treatments for those with life-threatening conditions, or when they are arrested.

Kai Newkirk, National Coordinator for Mobilization, says that the campaign wants to spotlight the real cause of the heathcare crisis. “We are never going to get real reform until we are able to stand up to the insurance companies and dramatize how much incredible suffering they have caused because they deny care to maximize profit,” Newkirk says. “By spending money that should be going towards care on huge ad campaigns, lobbyists, and campaign contributions, they are trying to keep us from exercising our will on Congress. Until we get them out of our politics and separate them from our democracy, we won’t see reform.”

One man’s experience with coverage denial has motivated him to take his protest a step further. Sam Pullen, 31, was arrested during a sit-in at Blue Cross’s Los Angeles headquarters as he paid tribute to his mother’s quest for cancer treatment at the same office. When Pullen was a teenager, his mother Leanna Bell was diagnosed with multiple-myeloma. Blue Cross wouldn’t cover a recommended bone-marrow transplant, so she staged a one-woman sit-in at the office until the company agreed to pay. Receiving the transplant allowed her to live for five more years.

After being arrested, Pullen refused to post bail, electing to remain in jail until Blue Cross met with him to discuss his demands for universal coverage. Five days later, Pullen’s bail was waived and he was removed from jail against his will. Pullen says his discharge was the result of “mounting pressure from the public.”

According to Newkirk, “When people are willing to do more than just show up and chant, when they are willing to risk arrest…it shows the urgency. It moves people to believe, as we do, that healthcare is a right.”

The group hopes its actions will be the largest nonviolent protests since the civil rights movement. Within three weeks of its late September launch, the campaign received more than 850 pledges from Americans “willing to put their bodies on the line,” Newkirk says.

The first sit-in in New York earned insurance coverage for a man with both cancer and AIDS. “We are already winning small victories in terms of individual cases,” says Pullen, “and once enough of these happen the industry as a whole…will say, ‘We need to stop trying to save money when people are dying because that is really going to get us bad publicity.’ “

Pullen recognizes the collective effort that healthcare reform will need in order to achieve the campaign’s goals. “This issue is so fundamental, and has affected so many people–this goes beyond race, class, gender–everyone has been affected by the profit-hungry, greedy insurance industry,” he says. “I’ve gotta tell you, it feels redemptive, it feels good, to stand up for what’s right.”

Editor’s note: The print version of this article has been edited slightly here to emphasize that Mobilization for Health Care for All exclusively advocates a single-payer system.

Diana Novak is a fall 2009 editorial intern at In These Times and a contributor to Chicago INNERVIEW. She moonlights as a trial lawyer assistant.

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