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Rally for healthcare justice at Chicago's "Bean." (Photo: Donna Smith)

Our Nation Needs This Balm as Single-Payer Action Surges Forward

Donna Smith

Over the past few days, more than 700 people from all over the country came together for the annual single-payer strategy conference.  This year, we were in Chicago, my hometown,  Of course we shared ideas, successes, concerns, and knowledge about the kind of healthcare reform that might truly give us the best healthcare system in the world through an improved Medicare for all for life model.

The convening groups represented Healthcare-NOW, the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Health Care, One Payer States, and Physicians for a National Health Program.

Leaders from this movement get precious little time to gather face-to-face during the year.  There were scores of nurses from all over the country -- New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas, California, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and beyond.  There were doctors from all over the place.  And there were those of us who are patients who have been injured (or might be injured) by our aggressively greedy healthcare system.  Labor leaders brought the hopes of their rank and file membership that someday we will actually allow contract bargaining to surround much more than healthcare benefits and costs that have squeezed out other issues like wages, vacation and other leave benefits and so on.

The conference opened with a joint protest at the Blue Cross/Blue Shield building in Chicago.  One of the great moments for me was seeing the medical students passionately calling for changes to their chosen profession.  It gave me hope for the future and the potential for real change.

But the highlight of the conference for me came in something much less quantifiable but much more powerful -- the balm of knowing that this wonderful nation is filled with compassionate, decent people who believe in the promise of our Declaration of Independence in which we read that all men are endowed by their creator of certain unalienable rights, and that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  There can be none of those dearly held rights for Americans when our healthcare system snuffs out any chance for equality and the opportunity to live life to its fullest extent.

We are not enemies of our neighbors, our business owners or our fellow Americans who may hold very different political positions.  When it comes to our unalienable rights, we are one.

On Sunday morning when we convened for the final session, John Lozier of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council called us together.  John reminded us that after Halloween comes the Day of the Dead, and he asked that we silence ourselves -- not an easy task for this many opinionated, wonderful social justice warriors -- and the room grew quiet.  John asked us to remember all of those who have lost the struggle to stay alive in the midst of a cloud of inhumanity that has emboldened those who profit from the pain of others.  I cannot say that it was silent.  Although there was an absence of noise, the energy of compassion swelled in the air.

In those few moments of collective remembrance, the room was filled with a palpable sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves that drives us onward to the day when our healthcare system unites us around healing and health rather than profits and wealth.  I tried to turn my thoughts away to gather myself for the morning's work, but the wonder, comfort and compassion washed over me in waves.  I tried not to weep.  I fought back my tears.  And all at once, I knew why it is not only possible but probable that we will secure the rights we all need to be as free and healthy as our neighbors.  I felt what it might be like to rest in that security and compassion.  And let me say, it was one of my life's "ah ha" moments.  Imagine a society that healed instead of arming itself for the next gun assault our streets.

So, going forward to do the work we envisioned is so much more important than our focus on the healthcare system or other progressive struggles.  It is about who we are as human beings and how we make sure that we can live up to the elegance of the words written in the Declaration and so oft cited by those who would tear us apart for personal gain.  All men, all women, all children are created equal.

Finally, just moments before we needed to part, a dear friend and brilliant woman professor, Lindy Hern, handed me a gift she brought me from her home state of Hawaii.  It is a beautiful little jar of ginger-guava lip balm.  Indeed.  Another balm.  I march on.  We march on.  We will achieve our goal, and soon we will gather in joyous celebration that the years of struggle when we worried about the path forward will wash away, and we will leave our children the promise we hold dear -- a nation that lives up to its earliest bargaining agreement that brought us together almost 240 years ago to believe we are indeed not only deserving of equal rights but endowed with those rights.

Won't you be a part of creating this kind of nation and this kind of world?  Join us.  A better society is coming.  Everybody in, nobody out.  Our battle cry sounds an awful lot like that long ago declaration, and it calls us to action.


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Donna Smith

Donna Smith

Donna Smith is the former executive director of Progressive Democrats of America and currently a Medicare for All campaign surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders.

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