Defeating the Senate’s Trumpcare Bill Is a Life-or-Death Fight

An organizer for Nevada’s Working Families Party discusses the efforts in her state to block the Senate healthcare bill and push for single-payer.

Sarah Jaffe

Members of the Carson City Working Families Party protest at the Carson City Chamber of Commerce Luncheon on February 22, 2017. (Via Northern Nevada Working Families Party)

Since elec­tion night 2016, the streets of the U.S. have rung with resis­tance. Peo­ple all over the coun­try have wok­en up with the con­vic­tion that they must do some­thing to fight inequal­i­ty in all its forms. But many are won­der­ing what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talk­ing with expe­ri­enced orga­niz­ers, trou­ble­mak­ers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fight­ing for a long time. They’ll be shar­ing their insights on what works, what does­n’t, and what has changed, and what is still the same.

"When we really start talking about issues, in general, I think people are more closely aligned than not. When we get into cult of personality and politicians, that is where the breakdown really happens."

Sarah Jaffe: Can you intro­duce yourself?

Autumn Zemke: I’m the Co-Chair of North­ern Neva­da Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty and have been since Novem­ber 8th. I live in Car­son City.

Sarah: You had an action this week­end at your Sen­a­tor Dean Heller’s office around the Repub­li­can health­care bill. Tell us about it.

Autumn: We were plan­ning on doing a sit-in but were only allowed to enter the build­ing one per­son at a time. I went in with a group of three and we asked if we could go up togeth­er but were told, No, no. Only one at a time.” This is in the fed­er­al build­ing in Reno. I just said, Well, what if we were men, lob­by­ists in nice suits? Then, would you say Only one of us at a time?’ What if we were lob­by­ists com­ing to speak to our senator?”

Secu­ri­ty couldn’t answer my ques­tion, but I was film­ing and was told by them that I was rude for try­ing to get an answer about that.

Sen. Heller real­ly does lim­it access. He has only had one town hall in six years. So, he’s not very inter­est­ed in what we have to say here in Nevada.

Sarah: Six years, that means he is com­ing up for re-elec­tion very soon.

Autumn: Very soon. His approval rat­ing has real­ly plum­met­ed. Neva­da is purplish/​reddish/​bluish. It is full of peo­ple who real­ly are not par­ti­san. I will be very sur­prised if he wins this elec­tion in Novem­ber. I will be shocked, espe­cial­ly because he will be in pub­lic at some meet­ing and say one thing and then with­in hours tell anoth­er group some­thing else. What I always find inter­est­ing about that is that in this day of tech­nol­o­gy, how can you still think you can get away with that and it won’t be publicized?

Then, with Planned Par­ent­hood and the Oba­macare repeal, he has been say­ing that he was against it. A tweet from Gov. San­doval says some­thing like, Dean Heller and I are work­ing to stop the repeal.” I can’t remem­ber the exact words. That is inter­est­ing because now you have a Repub­li­can gov­er­nor who is against the repeal and for expand­ed Med­ic­aid in Nevada.

When we were protest­ing at Sen. Heller’s office, one of the things that we dis­cussed was the fact that the AB374 Med­ic­aid-For-All bill was still sit­ting on the governor’s desk and he had until mid­night to veto it. If he didn’t, it would have become law. Gov. San­doval didn’t have to have his name on it, but he didn’t have to kill it either. I had real hopes for the fact that he would just let it go through. Then, short­ly after we had left the senator’s office, we got word that the gov­er­nor had vetoed it. Now, we are real­ly in this place that sav­ing the ACA is even more important.

I sup­port­ed the Med­ic­aid-For-All bill. I sup­port a sin­gle pay­er sys­tem. I per­son­al­ly don’t have insur­ance, so last night was a dev­as­tat­ing blow for me. But just because I don’t have insur­ance right now doesn’t mean that I am going to say, Well, just let [the ACA] be repealed. Oba­macare wasn’t good enough for me, so let’s just let 24 mil­lion peo­ple suf­fer. The 600,000 peo­ple on expand­ed Med­ic­aid in Neva­da, we don’t care about them because I per­son­al­ly don’t have insur­ance under that sys­tem.” That is not right. We real­ly have to fight against the repeal, but we also have to talk about ideas like expand­ed Med­ic­aid, like Medicare-For-All and what that tru­ly would mean for this country.

Sarah: Tell us more about the Med­ic­aid-For-All pro­pos­al in Neva­da for peo­ple who don’t know about it.

Autumn: I under­stand that health­care is com­plex and I am not an expert, but the way that I under­stood the bill is that it would mean that all Nevadans, all 2.9 mil­lion of us, would have been able to have the option to buy into the Med­ic­aid system.

You wouldn’t be forced into the sys­tem and pri­vate insur­ance would still exist. Med­ic­aid would just be on the exchange so peo­ple could buy into it. For those peo­ple who still qual­i­fy for Med­ic­aid, they would get their Medicaid.

We have a doc­tor short­age what­ev­er sys­tem you are look­ing at. Take fam­i­ly care, espe­cial­ly in places like Neva­da which is very rur­al. You have Las Vegas, which is a pop­u­la­tion cen­ter, and Reno. We are grow­ing a lit­tle bit. But the major­i­ty of Neva­da is rur­al. Doc­tors don’t exist in rur­al Neva­da anyway.

Sarah: Tell us a lit­tle bit more about what has been going on in Neva­da since Novem­ber, the work that you have been doing build­ing the orga­ni­za­tion out there.

Autumn: I real­ly want to focus on some pos­i­tives right now. Neva­da is an inter­est­ing state with our pol­i­tics. Neva­da went for Hillary Clin­ton and we formed Work­ing Fam­i­lies think­ing that Clin­ton would win. Then, she didn’t. So we have this oth­er focus that we didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly think we were going to have.

But through that focus, we have this amaz­ing coali­tion of orga­ni­za­tions that have come togeth­er and we meet reg­u­lar­ly. We do actions togeth­er. It is Indi­vis­i­ble and North­ern Neva­da March­es For­ward, Planned Par­ent­hood, Pro­gres­sive Democ­rats of Amer­i­ca. We are all at the table togeth­er and we are hold­ing strong. We sup­port each other’s actions and we real­ly push our mem­bers, and I think because we are such a strong coali­tion, that means some­thing dif­fer­ent than if we were each doing our own thing.

One of the first things we did was that we got wind of the fact that Sen­a­tor Heller and Con­gress­man Amod­ei were going to be the keynote speak­ers for the Car­son City Cham­ber of Com­merce. We, as a coali­tion, went togeth­er. I think there were close to 500 peo­ple there. We were able to turn peo­ple out and not only that, there were peo­ple who pur­chased tick­ets to be in the lun­cheon, peo­ple who had vot­ed for Amod­ei and Heller, too. They were there hold­ing them accountable.

That was the first time where Sen. Heller and Rep. Amod­ei were like, No, we aren’t going to vote for the repeal.” Arti­cle after arti­cle [of the AHCAA] they respond­ed, No. No. No. We are not going to vote for this.” Then, we know what hap­pened with Amod­ei (he vot­ed for the bill in the House). They also addressed our joint leg­is­la­ture. They only meet every two years. They were in ses­sion and they addressed them, we showed up to hold Amod­ei account­able and to hold Heller accountable.

Then, every Tues­day since Jan­u­ary 24th, peo­ple have shown up at the fed­er­al build­ing in Reno where Sen. Heller’s office is for our Resist Trump Tues­days. We don’t even have to adver­tise it any­more. Peo­ple just know to show up and indi­vid­u­al­ly want to hold him account­able. I think that peo­ple are real­ly angry. We are not just angry; we are real­ly scared. Health­care, being able to go to the doc­tor, it is our lives. This is how we con­tin­ue to live. It can be real­ly dis­cour­ag­ing, but hav­ing the coali­tion does help because we can stand together.

Sarah: I have been talk­ing to a lot of peo­ple who have been orga­niz­ing around health­care and it seems like an issue that breaks down a lot of walls for peo­ple. Peo­ple find it eas­i­er to come togeth­er and talk about health­care than some oth­er issues.

Autumn: I also think that is an inter­est­ing point. I think when we real­ly start talk­ing about issues, in gen­er­al, I think peo­ple are more close­ly aligned than not. When we get into cult of per­son­al­i­ty and politi­cians, that is where the break­down real­ly hap­pens. But, on an indi­vid­ual lev­el — my Repub­li­can fam­i­ly, if we talk about issues we can come togeth­er more eas­i­ly than if we bring up a spe­cif­ic name.

I also have to say, my hus­band works for Med­ic­aid in Neva­da. Until he start­ed work­ing for Med­ic­aid, I did not real­ize that peo­ple died because they didn’t have health­care. There was such a dis­con­nect between that real­i­ty. I am from Neva­da. My fam­i­ly has lived in Neva­da for 150 years. I always say that because there is this nar­ra­tive like Well, these pro­gres­sive peo­ple are com­ing into our state from Cal­i­for­nia or oth­er places.” No. I am Nevadan. I am chang­ing my state because it is my state.

We lived in Seat­tle and I nev­er under­stood that peo­ple died because they didn’t have health­care. Seat­tle is a pret­ty pro­gres­sive place and, also, you have a med­ical school that is real­ly good. Peo­ple get tak­en care of. Not always, but more so. Then, mov­ing down here, peo­ple are denied Med­ic­aid for not being in a cer­tain finan­cial stra­tum. It doesn’t mat­ter whether or not you have can­cer or if you have dia­betes or if you have any con­di­tion that is going to kill you. If you don’t fit those para­me­ters, you find the cash or you die.

Then, there is this oth­er assump­tion, Well, if peo­ple need treat­ment, they just go to the emer­gency room.” That is not accu­rate. Peo­ple who go to the emer­gency room, if you are hav­ing a heart attack, they per­form life-sav­ing mea­sures and then you are in med­ical debt for the rest of your life. But, if you have a con­di­tion like dia­betes or can­cer or any­thing that needs treat­ment over a long peri­od of time, you don’t live. They don’t treat you. They will sta­bi­lize you, but they are not giv­ing you chemotherapy.

I think the Amer­i­can pub­lic needs that kind of real­iza­tion, that kind of wake-up that I had, and I just hap­pened to have it a lit­tle bit soon­er than some peo­ple are com­ing to it. I think it is impor­tant for us to tell that sto­ry, This per­son died.” There is this gen­tle­man who I just came across on Twit­ter and he was try­ing to crowd­fund his insulin. I think he was in Hous­ton, Texas and he was big in the arts scene and com­ic book scene. This man actu­al­ly died because he couldn’t do it.

We shouldn’t be crowd­fund­ing health­care. Not in the wealth­i­est coun­try. It is insan­i­ty. Plus, it just doesn’t make finan­cial sense. The real­i­ty is we have to hold Sen. Heller account­able. Why would you do this? Why would you take health­care away from us?” And hold them account­able to the fact that there is no finan­cial rea­son for it.

I have to add, the real­i­ty is that the peo­ple who are in the 1% got there off the backs of our labor. It is not like we are try­ing to take some­thing from them. They have that wealth because they have work­ers, they have employ­ees, they have peo­ple that have lift­ed them up to this point of extreme wealth. They got there because they have com­pa­nies where they have peo­ple work­ing for them. That is our wealth. We helped make that wealth. Ask­ing for health­care shouldn’t be that big of a deal when we cre­ate the wealth as employ­ees, as workers.

Sarah: Did you suc­cess­ful­ly get to say any of this to Dean Heller or his aide yes­ter­day or did they just com­plete­ly block you all out?

Autumn: Peo­ple did go up. I always bring com­ment sheets with me. Peo­ple brought those up. It was kind of inter­est­ing because the staff lin­gered, like not real­ly engaged I would say, but lin­ger­ing. Like we were going to do some­thing. That’s just not how you treat your con­stituents. You engage them. It just wasn’t a dia­logue. The secu­ri­ty guard had a sheet with the law of why we weren’t being allowed to be let in, because we would dis­rupt or block the ingress and egress. The thing is, like my co-chair Drew List said, we had no plans of dis­rupt­ing in that way. We just want­ed to come in as a group, as a unit­ed front, and speak with our senator’s staff. That shouldn’t be a big deal. If we were a group of lob­by­ists, we would have been let in.

Sarah: What comes next? The bill is still secret. What are you plan­ning for next steps?

Autumn: We have a week of actions planned. I think there is some­thing going on almost every day between now and next week­end. We are going to con­tin­ue try­ing to get through to Heller on the phone. A lot of us use Resist­bot, where you text and it fax­es your writ­ten com­ments, and then, con­tin­ue to go in per­son. Then, we will see what he does.

But, even now, espe­cial­ly with the Medicare-For-All being vetoed, we just have to con­tin­ue to hold our politi­cians in the state account­able, and long-term. Because if you vote to repeal our health­care, there is so much going on that peo­ple kind of for­get. We have a year and a half to get out the vote, to get Heller out if he is not lis­ten­ing to us. To con­tin­ue to hold him account­able regard­less of what hap­pens with health­care, because there are so many oth­er things. But this is our focus right now.

I hon­est­ly think he will prob­a­bly vote with his par­ty. I real­ly do. Sta­tis­ti­cal­ly, he used to be a lit­tle bit more inde­pen­dent, but he now just votes along par­ty line. He did for all Trump’s nom­i­nees. He has just gone along. But, I was real­ly shocked about Amod­ei because he was so on the record [as being against the bill]. Long-term, we will con­tin­ue to hold Heller account­able, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the August recess when he will be here in Neva­da. The thing is, he has still yet to have a town hall in south­ern Neva­da. He is from where I live and he owns a ranch out where my fam­i­ly has lived for over a hun­dred years.

I think he needs to look his con­stituents in the eyes. We want to force him in the north to real­ly get down to Las Vegas and have a town hall down there, too. I think he is real­ly scared.

We are just going to keep push­ing, though. You see peo­ple kind of get­ting tired, but when it comes to the issues, I think some peo­ple are get­ting tired of the Trump/​Russia stuff and real­ly just want to focus on stuff that impacts everybody’s dai­ly life, like healthcare.

Sarah: How can peo­ple keep up with you and with Work­ing Fam­i­lies in Nevada?

Autumn: We are on Face­book. We are right now Car­son City Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty, we’re merg­ing into North­ern Neva­da. Then, on Twit­ter it is @CCWFP. Then, I real­ly rec­om­mend, too, going to the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty nation­al orga­ni­za­tion and see­ing what we as a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion have to offer.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast on iTunes. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission. 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue