Right-wing and antigovernment activists — a few of them wielding not only signs but even loaded firearms — have organized some of the angry protests surrounding the health care debate. But in Midtown Manhattan on Tuesday morning, a different sort of health care protest took place, led by left-leaning groups who accused insurers of greed and called for nationwide, single-payer health insurance.
The police said that 17 people were arrested after refusing to leave the lobby of an office building on Park Avenue where the insurance company Aetna has offices. They were charged with criminal trespass. In addition, the police said, three of those arrested were charged with obstructing governmental administration.
Organizers said it was the first step of a national campaign meant to publicize their views and challenge claims made by right-wing radio hosts and Republican officials.
“The myths about government death panels are pure hysteria,” an organizer, Mark Milano, said on Park Avenue. “The real death panels are people who are paid by insurance companies to deny health care to patients.”
About 50 people arrived at the Park Avenue building at 10 a.m., participants said, and sent a representative to the Aetna offices upstairs to demand that the company agree to immediately approve “lifesaving” health care requests made by doctors. When that person was turned away, organizers said, 16 protesters entered the lobby of the building and sat on the floor.
Soon the police arrived and a senior officer used a bullhorn to inform those in the lobby that they were breaking the law and subject to arrest. By 10:45, officers could be seen removing the last of the demonstrators and ushering them into the back of police vans.
A spokeswoman for Aetna, Cynthia Michener, said that no protester visited the company’s office on Tuesday.
“Aetna has been actively engaged in health reform,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “When you put yourself out there like we have on this issue, you make yourself a target. But there is more agreement than disagreement on the need to get reform done. It is important we work together to make health care reform a reality this year.”
Ms. Michener added:
Broadly, Aetna ’s goals are to get everyone covered, improve the quality of health outcomes and provide better value for each dollar spent on care. We’re committed to guaranteed coverage without regard to pre-existing conditions along with an individual requirement to get everyone in the system and subsidies for those who can’t afford it.
Outside, a crowd chanted “patients not profits” and said that large insurers routinely made decisions on what sorts of treatment to cover based more on cost than medical necessity.
“This is very much a dignified, nonviolent response to what some people call the howler movement that erupted in August,” said Katie Robbins, part of an advocacy group called Healthcare Now.
There has been a backlash from some quarters against Mr. Obama’s support for a public insurance plan that would compete with private insurers.
Ms. Robbins advocates on behalf of a bill before the House of Representatives that would, essentially, expand Medicare to cover all citizens. She said organizers from several groups across the country, with networks in 40 states, had been working together for about six weeks on a campaign they called Mobilization for Healthcare for All.
The groups have organized using a Web site and Twitter. So far, organizers said, 300 people have signed up to take part in additional protests using civil disobedience and aimed at insurance companies that are being planned for October, while legislators are expected to be working on health care issues.
“We’re going to be in Chicago next week and L.A. the week after that,” Ms. Robbins said. “We’re timing this around the legislative efforts of Congress.”