Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

"I’m from Johnstown, a town of about 20,000 people in Western Pennsylvania," writes Savannah Kinsey. "We used to be a booming steel mill town. But once the mills closed, Johnstown went downhill. If you’ve heard of my town at all, in fact, it’s probably because of our opioid problem." (Photo: Shutterstock)

Fighting for Healthcare in America's Forgotten Towns

"Life expectancy in my Western Pennsylvania town is on its way down. But there’s hope—if we fight harmful myths about poverty."

Savannah Kinsey

 by OtherWords

I’m from Johnstown, a town of about 20,000 people in Western Pennsylvania. We used to be a booming steel mill town. But once the mills closed, Johnstown went downhill.

If you’ve heard of my town at all, in fact, it’s probably because of our opioid problem. I’ve known a few people who’ve died, including my friend Nycki.

She was poor, like a lot of people in Johnstown. In fact, Johnstown has the highest poverty rate of any town in the state. Thirty-eight percent of all people here — and 63 percent of people under 18 — live below the official poverty line.

Nycki turned to drugs, and that led to going in and out of jail. She never got the treatment she needed. When she overdosed two years ago, Nycki left behind a four-year-old daughter. She was just 26.

Some people say young people like Nycki and me are lazy. But that’s not true. Johnstown just doesn’t have enough jobs that pay enough to live on.

I’m on disability and Medicaid. I’m grateful for the help I get, but it’s not enough to get by. Last year, out of nowhere, my food stamps got cut down to $15 a month. I’ve tried asking why and could never get a straight answer. (Now I hear the administration is trying to throw 3 million people off the program altogether.)

At the grocery store I sometimes have to put food back or add the charge to my credit card debt because I don’t have the cash. What’s going to happen my card is maxed out and I still don’t have the cash?

I’m not the only person in this boat that’s sinking. But what’s really helped lower my anxiety is getting involved with Put People First! PA. This is a group that gives people like me the opportunity to organize to make things better. It’s become like my family.

I help coordinate our Healthcare Rights Committee in Johnstown. I often go door to door talking to people about the need for health care for all. It’s hard work, but I love the challenge of persuading people to have hope that we can improve our situation.

What makes me sad is when I talk to people who say there’s no poverty problem in Johnstown. They’ve been told that if you’re poor, it’s your own fault. You should just work harder. Or they say that immigrants are the problem.

The real problem, I believe, is that a few people are getting very rich while poor people in towns like Johnstown are just forgotten.

Last fall, Put People First! PA organized demonstrations against health care companies. One was Conemaugh hospital, owned by Duke LifePoint, in Johnstown.

Do you know how much the CEO of LifePoint made in 2017? More than $13 million. Meanwhile, people — including some of my own family members — have gotten poor care at that hospital, which has a one-star rating from

Nobody should get that rich off a health care system that isn’t even working. Life expectancy for African Americans in Johnstown is just 64.8 years, almost 15 years below the national average.

That is just crazy, but it’s not just a Johnstown problem. Across the entire country, life expectancy is declining.

We need to make health care a right, with universal health care for all. And we need more public investment in communities like Johnstown, so that everyone has the opportunity to a secure, dignified life — not just the wealthy few at the top.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Savannah Kinsey

Savannah Kinsey

Savannah Kinsey is a Healthcare Rights Committee Coordinator for Put People First! PA in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. This op-ed was adapted from testimony she gave to the House Budget Committee and distributed by

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

British Court Rules Assange Can Appeal US Extradition

"As long as this case isn't dropped, as long as Julian isn't freed, Julian continues to suffer," said Stella Moris, Assange's fiancée.

Jake Johnson ·

Biden Considering Deploying Thousands of Troops to Eastern Europe

Anti-war commentators warned of an "exceedingly dangerous quagmire" in Ukraine if the U.S. ramps up its military presence in the region.

Jake Johnson ·

Leaked Report Suggests Impunity for IDF Troops in Deadly Stop of Palestinian-American Elder

"This is a policy: Israel does not prosecute those responsible for harming Palestinians, thus making their lives miserable," said the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

Brett Wilkins ·

'Exactly Right': Progressives Back Arizona Dems Censure of Sinema

"If you are a Democrat and you can't uphold the fundamental right to vote for all citizens... then there's a problem," said Rep. Ro Khanna.

Brett Wilkins ·

Amid Existential Threat to Reproductive Rights, Congress Urged to Act

"It's the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and if we don't fight like hell it could very well be the last," said one campaigner, who called on U.S. lawmakers to pass the Women's Health Protection Act.

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo