Why the May Day Rally Is So Important

Our political power comes from demonstrating that our campaign is continuing to grow in size and in commitment. It is the continued growth of our numbers, along with repeated demonstrations, that will allow us to achieve our goal of establishing the human right to healthcare in Vermont. This is why the May Day rally is so important.

"First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you."
—Nicholas Klein

The Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign is an effort to change what is politically possible in healthcare reform. The campaign is a statewide, grassroots movement of Vermonters organized around the desire to have healthcare recognized (in law) as the human right that it is and embodied in a healthcare system that satisfies human-rights standards.

The campaign began about two years ago, with a statewide survey of more than twelve hundred Vermonters. The results of this survey were released, on the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in our report, Voices of the Vermont Healthcare Crisis, which detailed the needless suffering and death caused by our broken healthcare system.

The release of this first human rights report was followed by a series of public hearings around the state, in which Vermonters testified about their experiences under our current healthcare system. As Vermonters heard the stories of others, they began to realize both that they were not alone in their own suffering and that their suffering was not their own fault. The Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign began to grow.

On May Day, last year, more than a thousand Vermonters gathered on the statehouse lawn in the largest workday rally in recent memory, in support of healthcare as a human right. This event was the first demonstration of the size and strength of the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign.

After that rally, the campaign continued to grow, with regional organizing committees forming in every corner of the state. Throughout 2009, these committees held local forums, to speak with more than eighty members of the legislature about our principles and our goals.

On January 6, 2010, at the start of the current legislative session, we delivered signed postcards from more than four thousand Vermonters demanding the enactment of legislation recognizing and embodying the human right to healthcare.

The following week, in a joint hearing of the house and senate healthcare committees, more than three hundred of us turned the house chamber into a sea of red shirts proclaiming Healthcare Is a Human Right and demanding that the legislature take action on the healthcare system reform bill that came closest to satisfying human-rights standards, S.88.

Every day of this legislative session, volunteers have sat in legislative committee meetings and made it clear to our elected representatives that we are paying attention, that we are clear about what we want and that we are not going away until we get it. These volunteers have testified about what it means to embody the human right to healthcare in legislation, and they have succeeded in having our principles incorporated into S.88.

When the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign began, two years ago, we knew that our challenge was to change what is politically possible. Even at the start of the current legislative session, after more than a year of work, we faced legislators and political insiders who told us that the comprehensive, fundamental change that our healthcare system requires was not possible while congress was working on federal healthcare legislation or while our own legislature was attempting to deal with the consequences of an economic crisis.

But what can a 28-2 vote in favor of S.88 by the Vermont senate mean, except that we are succeeding at changing what is politically possible?

As if to reaffirm our success, the guardians of the status quo have stopped ignoring us. From the radio advertisements seeking to instill fear, uncertainty and doubt (but serving the interests only of the pharmaceutical industry) to the commentaries seeking to ridicule Senator Racine (principal author of the senate's version of S.88), we are reassured that we must truly be winning the change that we have envisioned.

The success that we have had, so far, has been the result of large numbers of Vermonters talking with their neighbors, growing the base of support for healthcare as a human right and demonstrating this support repeatedly and consistently. Though volunteers have worked to analyze and evaluate every proposed amendment to S.88, guided by our simple and unimpeachable human-rights principles, it is not policy analysis that is responsible for our success. It is the growth in our numbers and the demonstration of that growth that is responsible for our success.

Our political power comes from demonstrating that our campaign is continuing to grow in size and in commitment. It is the continued growth of our numbers, along with repeated demonstrations, that will allow us to achieve our goal of establishing the human right to healthcare in Vermont. This is why the May Day rally is so important.

For many years, the Vermont Workers’ Center has worked with other organizations seeking to reform our healthcare system. The Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign continues to work with many groups that share our vision, including Vermont Health Care for All and the Vermont Citizens Campaign for Health. We have no doubt that a publicly-administered "single-payer" healthcare system is the best way of satisfying our human-rights principles, so we share a great deal with advocates focusing on a single-payer system as the basis for reform.

Our strategy, however, has always been — and will remain — one of organizing around human-rights principles. So our idea of progress, which to us means "are we growing our political power?" sometimes differs from that of our allies.

Following the joint hearings of the senate health and welfare committee and the house health care committee in January, the two chambers began to work on healthcare reform separately. The senate health and welfare committee agreed to take on the challenge of building a new, unified healthcare system, using S.88 as its legislative vehicle, and the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign worked with this committee to ensure that the system would be designed in accordance with our human-rights principles.

What eventually emerged from the senate was a version of S.88 that calls for contracting with a qualified, independent healthcare system architect to design several complete healthcare system options that can be evaluated and compared using defined principles and goals. Among these principles are the campaign's human-rights principles of universality, equity, accountability, transparency and participation.

At the same time, the house health care committee focused on extending some of the incremental reform that over many years has moved Vermont forward in healthcare system quality and inclusiveness. This undoubtedly is the same work that the legislature would have performed, had there been no Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign. After the Senate approved S.88, the house health care committee amended the bill, largely by appending it's own incremental reform initiatives.

The Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign feels that the senate's approach of seeking a comprehensive, unified design for our healthcare system represents an appropriate next step on the path to the fundamental, systemic reform that is necessary to establish for Vermonters a healthcare system that satisfies human rights standards.

While it is not our position that all incremental reform must be suspended until the results of the design process called for in S.88 are available, we do believe that the results of pilot projects, such as Blueprint for Health, should be available for evaluation before those projects are used as the basis for system-wide reform. Unfortunately, it is our feeling that much of the house's amendments is premature in this way, and, moreover, that such system-wide commitment to a still-untested approach could constitute a distraction from and obstacle to the work called for in the senate's portion of the bill.

We believe S.88 should remain purely focused on obtaining a qualified, independent expert to design several healthcare system options for Vermont, and that any immediate actions to expand existing healthcare reform work in Vermont should have been put into a separate bill.

It is by no means the case that all of the house health care committee's amendments constitute a distraction from the desired focus of S.88. There are several ways in which the house version of the bill improves on that of the senate, including a commitment to adequately funding the healthcare system, an oversight board with less potential for political obstruction and explicit statutory language claiming healthcare as a public good for all Vermonters.

We have shared our critique of this latest version of S.88 with the two healthcare committees, and as the two chambers work to resolve the differences between their two versions of S.88, we will continue to work to strengthen the legislation.

On May 1, there is no doubt that the general assembly will still be working to finalize and pass S.88, and the governor will be deciding, once again, whether to accede to the demands of the people of Vermont, by signing the bill into law, or whether to continue, instead, to serve the powerful interests vested in the healthcare status quo, with a veto. Our ability to win the enactment of S.88 depends on our ability to create the largest assembly of people that the statehouse lawn has ever held.

Our May 1 march and rally are the crucial next step to winning healthcare as a human right for all Vermonters. Only by demonstrating the growth of our movement and our unwavering commitment to healthcare as a human right can we wield the political power that we need, to continue to move toward this end.

We must join together on May 1 to continue to demand the human right to healthcare. In doing so, we will become a catalyst for change nationwide. And we will learn that, struggling together, we can make our vision of social justice become reality.