Watch These Universal Health Care Activists Disrupt Industry Execs at a New York Lunch

Contributing Editor
Jon Flanders

Amid an early snowfall on Thursday, November 15, on the sidewalk before a Hilton Garden Inn outside Albany, New York State's capital, about 40 activists from the Campaign for New York Health, an organization advocating for single-payer health care in the state, protested a conference going on inside among executives from the state's various private insurers, which the New York Health Act (NYHA), the single-payer bill in question, would put out of business.

The activists wielded signs reading, "Honk If You Hate Your Health Insurance" and "Big Profits From Pain? $hame On You!"

The second part of the protest happened inside, where four of the activists -- including Brandon Cuicchi of ACT UP NY -- one by one disrupted a panel in which executives from the Business Council of New York State and the national drugmaker trade group PhRMA were arguing against single-payer, in keeping with an anti-single-payer campaign they have launched called The Realities of Single Payer Healthcare for New York.

As each activist stood up and began accusing attendees of lying about single-payer's viability and protecting their own profits over people's lives, attendees groaned and yelled "Go home!" -- some of them clinking their glasses with utensils to drown out the activists.

Cuicchi, the last to disrupt, shouted out that private-driven plans play a huge role in enabling the exorbitant cost of drugs, especially those for chronic illnesses like HIV, because they lack the power to negotiate drug prices that a single entity, such as a state-run health system, would have.

The protest and disruption are early attempts in a long push that the Campaign for New York Health has planned in the months ahead to get the NYHA passed in both houses of the state legislature, which are now solidly Democratic after the elections of November 6. (The bill died during the last session, in a Republican-held Senate.)

The NYHA would replace all health plans across the state -- public and private, employer-linked and individual -- with a single, comprehensive (vision, dental, etc.) state-run plan with zero premiums or copays. It would be funded by both a progressive payroll tax (so that wealthy New Yorkers would be essentially paying for poorer ones' health care) and a capital gains tax.

If the Trump administration were not to allow New York state a waiver to override Medicare and Medicaid, which the administration has already said it would refuse to do, those programs would remain in place, but the NYHA would pick up any related premiums and copays, plus cover anything they did not cover.

Last summer, a long-awaited study from the respected, independent RAND corporation found that the NYHA was financially feasible and could even cut future state health and administrative spending by about 3.1% from current levels. The study found that the bill also calls for $139 billion in new state tax revenues by 2022, 156% more than current levels.

These would, however, replace money spent on premiums, employer contributions, and out-of-pocket costs.

Opponents of NYHA say that it will create out-of-control costs, job loss, and burdens on businesses. Advocates say that it will not only save everyone money in the long-term, but that covering every New Yorker, regardless of immigration status (which is not currently the case), is the right thing to do, especially in a state with high levels of both wealth and income inequality -- and where about 5% of residents are still uninsured.

Campaign for New York Health protesters
Jon Flanders

Last year, a similar bill in deep-blue California passed the Senate but was put down in the Assembly on the grounds that it was too expensive -- proving that Democratic majorities don't mean an easy win for single-payer health care. Other states, including Minnesota and Colorado, also have single-payer efforts underway.

The NYHA would also override the need for New York State to have its own AIDS Drug Assistance Program, that payer of last resort for HIV-positive New Yorkers who have no other way of getting coverage. And again, Campaign for New York Health activist Bob Lederer points out, it also might benefit HIV-positive New Yorkers by having the scale to negotiate down the price of HIV treatment and other high-priced medications with a power that individual, competing health plans lack.

Lederer urges that New Yorkers interested in the campaign get on board via the website. In coming weeks and months, he said, the campaign will be doing "Picket the Profiteers" protests outside the offices of some of the state's largest insurers who are blocking NYHA, as well as countless educational forums and congressional visits in Albany and statewide.

Lederer says that while it was easy for Democratic lawmakers to get behind NYHA in the last session, because it made them look progressive while knowing it had no chance of passing in a Republican-led Senate, the new Democratic majority in Albany means that blue lawmakers there might now be vulnerable to being peeled off by insurance industry and other lobbyists who've perhaps donated to their campaigns.

"That's why we're ramping up all the amazing grassroots work that has brought us to this point," Lederer says. "We'll do hundreds of community forums, lobby days, postcard parties, phone calls. And I think we'll get the participation, because people are excited from the election results in the state, and now they want something to show for it."

"We did what we did today because all New Yorkers deserve health care, and because drug prices are too high," concluded Cuicchi. "We're going to keep doing what we did today, which is to tell the health industry that New Yorkers want single-payer health care -- and we won't stop until we have it."