Great Disparities in Healthcare For Many Community Members

HUDSON VALLEY – At a virtual event recently, over 1,000 viewers heard testimonies from impacted people in the Hudson Valley as they shared their experiences of the disparate healthcare system in New York State. “The Right to Health and the 3rd Reconstruction: A Truth Commission on Healthcare” also featured responses and analysis from national leaders in the movement for universal healthcare, tying the experiences of the Hudson Valley testifiers to the nationwide healthcare crisis.

Hudson Valley community leaders described horrific, personal stories of exorbitant medical debt, lack of access to basic healthcare, medical racism, and unfair wages for those providing critical care to our most vulnerable New Yorkers. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare these systemic disparities and deepened the healthcare crisis in the state and around the nation.

“See me, hear me, know me, love me enough to facilitate change,” was part of the powerful opening call by Rev. Chris Wylie who joined from the Western region of the state to show solidarity with the testifiers who are part of the millions of New Yorkers struggling in our inadequate healthcare system.

NYSNA member, Bernetta Urquhart, who has been a registered nurse offering care to her community at Mt. Vernon Hospital for decades, recounted the devastating story of one of her patients who had to be transferred after surgery because the hospital didn’t have the resources for their care. Urquhart and other community members have been fighting against the closure of Mt. Vernon Hospital by their parent company Montefiore. “Truth is, history won’t care about our long stride today or tomorrow if we lose sight of our neighbors’ suffering, deafen our ears to the cries for help, or turn a blind eye to the death and tragedy.”

The situation of other community hospitals such as Mt. Vernon, which is owned by multi-billion dollar healthcare companies like Montefiore who profit from sickness and death, is far from unique. Olga Vasquez of Make The Road, NY testified to her experience of the for-profit medical system and has had to delay care because of the costs passed on to immigrants. “Our situation is not unique,” Olga declared, “My health should be treated as a right and not a privilege. I have spent months trying to set up an appointment for a mammogram. If I had health insurance the service would be free.”

Medical debt and the indecipherable maze of bureaucracy that defines our healthcare system was a common theme in the experiences of the testifiers.

Dariella Rodriguez of Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Coalition has also suffered under the weight of the confusing, for-profit medical system and immoral medical debt. She owes over $90,000 in medical bills after her son’s appendix ruptured in the midst of the pandemic. “If I’m struggling to figure out the system and navigate it, I can’t even imagine how other families in my community are struggling. It is important to not allow the healthcare industry to be governed and decided on by profit driven, individual rules.”

Gemma Calinda’s story reverberated with the same struggles and resonated with solutions, such as the Fair Pay for Homecare Act. Calinda, a home health care activist with Multiple Sclerosis, called on New York Governor Kathy Hochul to include pay increases for home health care workers in the Executive Budget, instead of a one-time bonus. “We are now counting on our representatives in the State Assembly and Senate to bring Fair Pay for Homecare over the finish line.” Such a move would increase the pay of homecare workers from $13.20 in most parts of the state to a living wage and provide care to the estimated 70% of New Yorkers who will need home care at some stage of life.

Connecting the struggles of New Yorkers to the national healthcare crisis is a critical piece to organizing and building a movement in the fight for universal healthcare and gaining freedom from the corporate model of care we now have. “Healthcare is exchanged on the stock market, so that gives you an idea of how important the dollars around healthcare are to this entire economic system,” declared Sheila Garland-Olaniran, a former nurse and longtime national organizer who is now on the steering committee of the Illinois Poor People’s Campaign. Garland-Olaniran reminded us that the organizing spirit of the original campaign of 1968 is present today with human rights being at the core of our current struggles. “[They] said healthcare is a human right, the right to a guaranteed income is a human right, the right to live in peace without war; putting it on the level of human rights opens the door to doing the kind of organizing we see getting pulled together today.”

Concluding remarks by Nijmie Zakkiyyah Dzurinko of Put People First PA and the Nonviolent Medicaid Army, a group organizing around the need for universal healthcare in Pennsylvania, reminded us of the necessity for broadscale education around the economic reality of healthcare in the United States. “The wealthy and the ruling class do not have the same interest in healthcare as the working class.” This becomes clear when we acknowledge the hundreds of billions of dollars that has been invested in the healthcare industry through both public offerings and private equity solely to produce more profit out of the suffering such as our testifiers described. Universal healthcare was one of the most important issues to voters in the 2020 election, yet legislators have done very little to work on behalf of the interests of the poor and working class. Zakkiyyah Dzurinko stressed, “We have to do the work to raise consciousness and organize to build that unity that is at hand around our common experience.”

Tuesday evening’s gathering was the third in a series of Truth Commissions events organized by the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State and the New York State Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

“We know that we have to unite and work across lines of division,” emphasized Joe Paparone, the lead organizer for the Labor-Religion Coalition and an organizer in the New York state Poor Poor People’s Campaign. “Our task is to organize people into this movement in the fight for healthcare as a human right. We need to fight and struggle and claw back what the ruling class has stolen from us as we build this unified movement led by those most directly impacted, the poor, and dispossessed. We are all in this together.”
The recording is available now on Facebook.

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