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Shutdown Offers Taste of Suffering the Poor and Vulnerable Know Too Well

Quick lesson for those who do not know now or have forgotten what it is like to live on the financial edge: most businesses and financial institutions waiting for bill payment will not care why bills are not paid on time

 Furloughed federal workers and area elected officials hold a protest rally in front of Independence Hall on January 8, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The government shutdown, now lasting 18 days, marks the second longest United States in history, affecting about 800,000 federal employees. (Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images)

The drama around the shutdown may seem mostly political with the latest news barely touching on the pain felt by real people who believed they worked for all of us.  While millions of us celebrated festive holidays, I know that many families had a season of worry that hasn’t ended yet. You probably know it too. And by the time Congress and the dysfunctional man in the White House get anything settled to end the government shutdown—now in its 19th day—the damage done to some families will take months to repair.  

Those of us fighting to achieve improved Medicare for All because we have lived and are living the damage dished out by the U.S. healthcare system relate in a deeply personal way to the federal employees going without pay during the shutdown.  And just as the Trumpublicans have moved us in the wrong direction on healthcare reform, many patients and their families have been damaged already by trusting the lousy plans now passing for cheap insurance. By now, sick people have already gone without care, and no doubt, people will die due to changes to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the associated Medicaid expansion.  If we didn’t believe those currently in power would take further steps to harm more people in order to secure their own positions and wealth, that was foolish of us.

"Those of us fighting to achieve improved Medicare for All because we have lived and are living the damage dished out by the U.S. healthcare system relate in a deeply personal way to the federal employees going without pay during the shutdown."

Quick lesson for those who do not know now or have forgotten what it is like to live on the financial edge: most businesses and financial institutions waiting for bill payment will not care why bills are not paid on time.  Being dunned is no fun. Late fees add up. And because groceries, transportation, utilities, medicine and a roof over your head take immediate priority, the things that fall by the wayside are the items most likely to incur late fees and charges and also damage credit down the line.  It doesn’t take long for a family going without a paycheck to get in financial hot water. Stress goes up. There are arguments, and sometimes it hurts – a lot. That’s what this government shutdown does to people.

I am left wondering how people who signed up for health insurance to take effect on the first of the year are going to make do.  Did folks think that the big insurance giants would wait for premiums to be paid whenever the shutdown ends and paychecks resume weeks later?  Maybe the pharmacies will allow moms and dads to just pay later for needed medications, etc? I don’t think so, and neither do you. But do you really think about that daily human pain?  I hate to say it, but I am betting most of us who didn’t need to worry about a direct hit to our wallets from the shutdown probably brushed aside those unpleasant thoughts so that we might have our holidays.

Some time ago, I heard a prominent writer for The Nation say he was sick of hearing about the healthcare problems people face as they try to navigate our healthcare system.

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Apparently, it is tiring and boring to hear about people fighting to survive—at least that boredom apparently sets in for those who do not know the anguish of injury and illness going untreated only because a bank account is empty.  I never again spoke of patient suffering around that writer. That was a lesson for me in how many people currently making a handsome living promoting progressive, left-leaning policies and politics are actually fairly immune to the realities faced by millions of us.  I was interested to see the same writer wax eloquent on the shutdown, and perhaps someday he will acknowledge that he has made a good living telling the stories of those hurt by such political decisions.

My deep concern is that as writers like my weary friend choose not to consider the deep hurt—the terrible human damage—done to real, living beings during these times of policy upheaval, we may lose our sense of connection to what once really mattered to many of us—we the people.  We have in our history had terrible economic times and terrific economic times. We have had times of tremendous political and societal turmoil.

It feels like we are planning for some grand future off in the distance when the trauma of these times will give way to progressivism and all the glories we hope that might mean for us.  In 2020 we think we’ll elect a more progressive person to replace the grifter currently leading the Trumpublican Party. I have heard so many people say they believe the groundwork is being laid for improved Medicare for All at least in part because of the awful problems being created by the weakening of the ACA and the Medicaid expansion.  Out of the ashes will come the flowers. And perhaps, ultimately, that will happen. The new Medicare for All caucus in Congress and the tremendous support among Americans across all political spectrums is an amazing advancement for the health justice movement. I am not diminishing that progress in any way—especially since I worked hard to be part of that progress.

What gnaws at me is the terrible periods until we can truly secure more of our self-government by the people and until those we elect actually do the business of the people.  The human suffering of these political games and bantering and jockeying for power is a deep and serious wound to us all. While the hours, the days, the weeks, the months, and the years of fighting to achieve some better future, the pain of millions will continue.  What sacrifice are we asking of our fellow Americans during this shutdown? Or as they wait for new policies in healthcare or other areas? Are they invisible to us? How much human suffering are we willing to allow to hasten the political goals of the progressive long-term?

During this time, we must not lose sight of our own people in our own communities who are being harmed unnecessarily for political gain.  We must not allow them to become the tools of some future win. Reach out. Do the peoples’ business now, because someone you know is liekly hurting—and if you want them to join you in the fight for justice, then be willing to join them and do what you can to actually help.  Demand that they tell you their stories. Give some humanity where none exists, my friends. To those who are hurting, 2020 is a long way off, Robert Mueller isn't going to pay their bills, and there is nothing boring about going broke in 2019.

Donna Smith

Donna Smith
Donna Smith Donna Smith is the national chair of the Healthcare Not Warfare campaign for Progressive Democrats of America.  She was featured in Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary, SiCKO.

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