Latest press: Boston Globe on May 1 Rally

Hundreds rally for universal health care

By Dave Gram
Associated Press Writer / May 1, 2009

MONTPELIER, Vt.—The contention that "health care is a human right" brought hundreds of people to the Statehouse steps on Friday to demand that Vermont implement universal health care coverage.

Friday's event, organized by the Vermont Workers' Center and other progressive-leaning groups, included some disruption as chanting demonstrators entered the Statehouse and were admonished by officials for disrupting business in parts of the building. There were no arrests.

Speakers ranged from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a longtime advocate for single-payer health care, to nurses from Vermont's largest hospital, Burlington's Fletcher Allen Health Care.

Sanders called fight for universal health care "the great civil rights struggle of our time."

"When Wall Street gets into financial distress, we have a system to bail them out and pay the CEOs millions in bonuses," said Sanders, an independent and self-described democratic socialist. "When a working person with no insurance or inadequate gets sick, they're on their own."

At its peak, the crowd appeared to include more than 500 participants. But James Haslam, director of the Workers' Center, said an event that began with a march to the Statehouse from Montpelier City Hall and saw many attend just parts of the two-hour rally on their lunch breaks, resulted in more than 1,000 registering to remain active in the health care cause.

Many in the crowd appeared to support Sanders' suggestion that as health care reform is pursued on a national level by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, that Vermont should be allowed to host a pilot project in which single-payer, universal health care is tried out.

Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss, who grew up in Wisconsin, said he was in Saskatchewan in 1964 when it became the first Canadian province to create such a health care system -- which has since spread across Canada.

He quoted a Quebec health official who scoffed at the term "socialized medicine," used by some to describe the Canadian system, instead calling it "civilized medicine."

"They have preventative care for a lifetime," Kiss said of Canadians. "There's no doubt they have better lives as a result."

The demonstration included ample theatrics, with skits, music and signs with slogans like "Health care is a human right" and "Health care for all."

While most of the crowd appeared to lean left politically, there were a few exceptions. Around the edges were people with signs criticizing President Barack Obama and others taking a socially conservative position on health care issues. "Abortion hurts women," one sign said. "Physician-assisted suicide -- you can live without it," said another.

One crowd member, Erica Garfin, 59, a health care planning consultant from Montpelier, said she had begun working for single-payer health care about 20 years ago.

"For me it's really wonderful to look around and see all these faces I don't know -- younger people," Garfin said.

None of several crowd members questioned said they were troubled by attending a health care rally the same week a global influenza outbreak had some health officials talking of canceling events like sporting events that would draw large crowds.

The state's acting epidemiologist, Patsy Kelso of the Vermont Health Department, said she wasn't worried either.

"With no confirmed or probable cases at this time in Vermont, we're not making any recommendations at the time about not holding large gatherings, such as a rally outside the Statehouse."