Public healthcare battle in Washington state

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As Washington D.C. politicos plow ahead with healthcare “reform” that profits Big Insurance, low-cost state programs become a survival issue.

Yet in the “other” Washington, state politicians slashed $238 million from one such program — Basic Health. Thousands of people have already been forced off the program. In 2010, Governor Christine Gregoire’s plan for balancing the budget calls for eliminating Basic Health entirely.

When news of deep cuts to vital services hit the press last year, Seattle Radical Women launched Sisters Organize for Survival. The goal? To fight the cuts, save Basic Health, and call for a real solution that expands healthcare insurance to include the state’s 900,000 uninsured. SOS’s practical proposal on how to pay for this? Tax profits of large corporations and the richest state residents.

SOS collected thousands of signatures on a petition to save Basic Health, held a people’s court, and orchestrated a call-in to key officials. On Jan. 12 a bright red “carpet” of those petitions was unfurled during a rally on the Capitol steps in Olympia and delivered to the governor’s office. Participants from around the state, angry at being ignored, spoke forcefully. The favorite chant was “Don’t cut Basic Health! Tax the rich! Share the wealth!”

These are just a few of the ways SOS is cranking up heat on Democrats and Republicans and firing up others to do the same.

Driving the campaign is its urgency. Amanda M., one of many who signed the petition online, put it this way: “My son and I rely on this [program] for our healthcare. Please don’t make us choose between our food/shelter or our healthcare.”

Tax the corporations to fund healthcare. While Basic Health is far from perfect, it is a lifesaver for tens of thousands of low-income residents in Washington.

Unlike single-payer, where government directly pays healthcare providers, Basic Health subsidizes enrollees so they can buy medical coverage. When insurance prices skyrocketed over past years, the state picked up the tab. Now it passes those costs on to enrollees.

While severing Basic Health and other critical services, the Democratic governor and Democratic-controlled legislature are saving billions of dollars for Big Business in tax breaks and subsidies. Before the budget crisis hit, Washington already had the most regressive tax structure in the U.S. Poor people pay 17 percent of their income in taxes, while the wealthiest pay three percent. Profitable corporations such as Microsoft, Boeing, and Nordstrom pay astonishingly few taxes.

Such travesties fuel support for SOS’s demand to overhaul state taxes in order to fund not only healthcare, but other services and education. The slogan “Tax the rich and corporate profits” resonates with working-class taxpayers.

SOS is also exposing the lies of Democratic Party leaders who assure everyone that the tortured national reform bill will solve the healthcare crisis. In a widely publicized statement against that bill, SOS member Sukey Wolf wrote, “The bill Congress is writing entrenches unlimited profits for the private insurance industry, the cause of our healthcare crisis. Working people will be forced to pay outrageous costs and get precious little.”

Keeping up the pressure. SOS maps out plans at weekly meetings, doorbells neighborhoods, speaks to community groups, petitions social justice rallies, organizes forums, issues statements, and comes up with creative ways to explain the issues and put heat on officials.

To start public discussion, which politicians evaded when Basic Health first came under assault, SOS organized a People’s Court held on Nov. 14. Over thirty groups and prominent community activists endorsed, including Office and Professional Employees Local 8, Freedom Socialist Party, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, Sistah 2 Sistah, National Lawyers Guild–Seattle Chapter, and United for Single Payer.

At a packed community center in Seattle’s multiracial Rainier Valley, people spoke about how the for-profit U.S. healthcare system is filled with race discrimination, and condemns millions of people to poor health and premature death.

Lois Thetford, Physician’s Assistant at a public clinic, noted that the infant mortality rate for African Americans and Native Americans in Washington is 90 percent higher than for whites. In rural areas, where more people rely on Basic Health, cuts will force 25 percent of clinics to close. Another panelist, minister W.D. Patterson, a Black community healthcare advocate, urged unity to force accountability from state health boards. He said these boards are charged with making health policy and must be open, not secretive.

In discussion, some participants described not being able to afford higher prices for Basic Health. Others denounced the racist exclusion of undocumented immigrants at the national level. Several people told stories of economic hardship made intolerable by being uninsured. The “jury” of participants voted unanimously to condemn state politicians for abandoning poor and working people. SOS issued a press release and delivered that verdict to state officials.

On Dec. 4, SOS organized a holiday protest at the Seattle Convention Center, “Don’t Scrooge Around with Basic Health,” where state Democrats were celebrating their “victories.” On Human Rights Day, SOS organized a call-in to the governor and key legislators.

SOS will mobilize in Olympia on Jan. 22., the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, to draw attention to the lack of reproductive healthcare, now provided by the endangered Basic Health. And in February, the group joins Washington Federation of State Employees Local 304 at another rally in Olympia calling for taxing the wealthy and corporate profits for social services.

Resistance is contagious. What gives this campaign its punch is society’s dire need for healthcare, the anti-capitalist foundation of the campaign, and the tenacity of its leaders and participants. Each SOS action, large and small, builds momentum for the next and brings more people into the fight.

Says Christina López, president of Seattle Radical Women which initiated the SOS campaign, “In these hard economic times, SOS is inspiring people to fight back together. That’s our job as radicals — to lead a militant battle for reform, on the way to revolutionary change.”

To get involved in the Basic Health campaign or learn more, call 206-722-6057, visit SaveBasicHealth.org, or email rwseattle@mindspring.com.

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