Marilyn Clement, founder and National Coordinator of Healthcare-NOW!,
passed away on Monday, August 3, 2009. Sister Marilyn was the
inspiration for the BC series on Single_Payer Healthcare. We will
miss her friendship, support and hard work for the movement for
economic justice, social justice and peace. Click here
for more about her life.
Healthcare. The topic is on everybody’s
tongue today. But when I first started worrying about it, virtually
no one was interested in it. I’d never heard of John Conyers,
Jr., and H.R. 676. If I had, I would have been working for single-payer,
universal healthcare cause a lot sooner.
I had always been well-covered on my jobs and,
when I got married, it was easy to put my husband on a plan.
As a dual disability family, Jimmy and I were covered for doctors,
prescription drugs, and testing. We had what was known as an
80-20 plan—we paid 20% of costs and the insurance company
paid the rest. Not one cent came out of my paycheck. It’s
true that hearing aids weren’t covered but I got good discounts
from the New York League for the Hard of Hearing for my hearing
Things were inexpensive back then, so this worked
out fine. Healthcare wasn’t a concern. Jimmy was only on
two prescription drugs and I rarely needed any. Even during periods
of unemployment, things were not too bad coverage-wise. After
signing up for unemployment, I would just walk over to the convenient
desk right in the unemployment office, and sign up for Medicaid.
I’d get the card in the mail and use it whenever I needed
it. It was even good for getting free food when they would give
it away at various churches.
An Unraveling Safety Net
In the mid-1980s, the safety net was being torn
up. Every so often, we would notice things that were not fair,
such as having to wait six months to get coverage for preexisting
conditions or small businesses with chronically ill employees
not being able to purchase coverage. We complained about it,
but we always had a way to compensate. If one of us wasn’t
covered, the other one was. Until I lost my job in the mid-1980s.
. . .
That’s when we saw what paying out-of-pocket
really meant. But let me be upfront here: This isn’t a
tale of horror. It’s not a John Q story. It’s just
really about how a couple of middle-class folks started to realize
that something was horribly wrong with our healthcare system.
We did it in the usual way—it touched our family and made
us realize what was going on.
Jimmy’s medications always required strict
monitoring. He has a form of epilepsy that requires very precise
dosages of medicine and only brand drugs can give him that. And,
even so, the medicines he was on, if not monitored frequently,
could cause dangerous episodes of Dilantin toxicity requiring
hospitalization to clear the drug’s buildup in his system.
But I was unemployed and his job didn’t offer any coverage.
And this time, the Medicaid requirements had tightened up considerably.
The rules were that a family of two had to make less than $800.00
per month to get covered. We made more than that. (What we would
have done to eat and survive had we only brought in that amount—I
don’t know. Our rent was $750.00!) So, Jimmy stopped going
to the doctor who was monitoring him and went to a clinic because
it was less expensive.
The clinic, unlike Jimmy’s doctor, didn’t
bother to inform us that he was getting a buildup of Dilantin
so he could cut back, and so, sure enough, he had another toxic
episode. There he was in the hospital, not getting paid for the
time, and his care was completely uncovered. And, when he got
back out, he was put on another drug that didn’t work to
control the seizures. One night in the midst of a seizure he
grabbed a radiator in our apartment and ended up with third-degree
burns on his hand. We had the hospital bill. We were paying for
a more expensive drug that didn’t work. We had a new bill
for the burns. And, we still weren’t eligible for catastrophic
coverage from Medicaid. My mom gave us money and he went back
to his doctor. We realized that the price of not going to his
doctor was even higher than going there—even at $85.00
A couple of years later, Jimmy had got a new job
and was waiting for coverage to kick in. And while waiting to
be covered for a visit to a neurologist, he had a seizure on
the new job and got a cut on his head that required stitches.
Again, my mom (OUR safety-net) gave us the $500.00 in cash we
needed to see the neurologist to get Jimmy’s medications
I was still doing OK, but I kept thinking that
there was something wrong with this system. Back then, it was
just simple little incremental things I wanted, such as no waiting
periods for chronic illness and no financial discrimination against
people who needed to take brand medications.
Fast forward into the 2000s. That’s when
I started taking medications too. My medical picture now included
asthma and spinal stenosis in addition to my hearing impairment,
and I had to take medicines for these conditions. By then, we
were covered—and covered very, very well—via my husband’s
job for doctors and testing. But, every year around May or June,
the prescription coverage would max out and we would spend the
rest of the year paying out-of-pocket for the drugs. We used
a lot of plastic for that and we still do. Every year, we pay
about $5,000.00 out-of-pocket for prescription drugs.
A Vision of Something Better
I don’t know when it was that I started
thinking about how we needed a universal, single-payer system
but it became a passion of mine. I asked: Why is it that all
of the other developed countries in the world have universal
health coverage but we do not have it here in what is supposed
to be the richest country in the world?
I kept looking for some group that was fighting
for such coverage. When one group marched across the Brooklyn
Bridge for healthcare, I wanted to be there, but another unbreakable
commitment—a baby shower for one of my in-laws who had
paid more than $20,000 in fees for IVF to get pregnant. When
I saw that the dates conflicted I actually cried hysterically.
I had waited ten years for an event like that and I couldn’t
go. Jimmy marched for me. He carried my sign. It read: ILLS,
BILLS & PILLS and the design included actual bills for our
Then one day—I still cannot figure out how—Healthcare-NOW!
showed up in my inbox and I joined. I haven’t looked back
since. I do whatever I can, whenever I can, to help this group
spread the message. And it is my dream that someday we will have
the numbers of people to reach critical mass to make it happen—a
universal, single-payer healthcare system that covers everything
for everybody. No exceptions. No exclusions.
Healthcare-NOW! had a hearing at Riverside Church
this past summer. And there I met John Conyers. A quiet man,
he shook my hand and just said: “I’m John Conyers.” I
knew he was among the congresspeople that was scheduled to be
there, but I had no idea about his role in the hearing. Then,
when the hearing got underway, I realized that he was the central
figure in our struggle. He had been working on this for ten years.
All I could ask was: Why hadn’t the mainstream media ever
revealed this? I had read avidly on the topic of healthcare but
I’d never heard of Rep. Conyers until that day last summer.
When I told him at a later meeting that I wished he were my representative,
he replied: “I represent everybody.” Well, I don’t
live in his district. I’m a New Yorker, but Conyers does
represent me more than the politicians over here do.
Why Not NOW?
There is a saying: People who are paid not to
know things will not know them. The people in our government
know what healthcare costs but they choose to look at it from
the perspective of what it costs the government or business.
They do not choose to look at it from the perspective of what
it costs the people who have to pay for it. They do not see that
people are chained to jobs because of the need for coverage and
that people will have to work until the drop to keep that coverage
because they wrote a big fat doughnut hole into prescription
drug coverage. We would fall right into it. Now in our late 50s,
we wonder if we will ever be able to retire.
Yet we are the lucky ones. We still have our jobs.
We are covered for most things. All we feel is insecure. All
we worry about is not being able to save for retirement. All
around us we see that other people have gone through so much
more—their lives and their dreams are completely shattered
because they fell right through the holes in the safety net.
There are so many more people who don’t have a ghost of
a chance to preserve what is left of their lives.
Politicians are trying to patch up the system
with all sorts of crazy plans. They want to require people to
buy these plans that cover nothing until one is practically broke.
The politicians want to take prescription drugs out of the plans.
This is worse than having no coverage because one ends up paying
for nothing and then paying one’s medical bills too. And
there is talk of taxing what coverage we do get. These fixes
won’t work. They’ll only pour more money into the
coffers of the insurance companies and make things worse.
It’s time to raise our voices loud and clear.
Single-payer, universal healthcare is the prescription we need
and it’s the only thing that will cure this sick system
we have. Conyers has the bill just waiting to be passed. Groups
like Healthcare-NOW! are raising consciousness, but, in my view,
more is needed. I’d like to see demonstrations take place
outside medical insurance companies and Congressional offices,
with people demanding the passage of H.R. 676. Whether we do
pickets, rallies with speeches, or acts of civil disobedience
(such as die-ins or sit-ins), we need to put the pressure on.
The mainstream Democratic candidates realize that we want the
system fixed but they are clueless about HOW we want it fixed.
The “cures” they are offering are worse than the “disease.” And
they aren’t going to get it until we put the pressure on.
I’m ready for action.
Ms. Billie M. Spaight, a freelance medical
editor living in Richmond Hill Queens, is a Healthcare-NOW!
here to contact Ms. Spaight and Healthcare-NOW.
here to read any of the articles in this special BC
series on Single-Payer Healthcare.