The 2016 National Single Payer Strategy Conference was truly an historic event. For the first time in decades, national single payer advocacy organizations came together around a joint agenda and focused on building unity and strategic clarity as we work to finish the job and make healthcare a right for everyone in America.
The conference got off to a strong start with a spirited demonsration in front of the Blue Cross/Blue Shield skyscraper in downtown Chicago. Members of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) , Healthcare NOW, One Payer States and the Illinois Single Payer Coalition joined with the Labor Campaign to tell these overpaid insurance executives that it was time for them, and all private insurance companies, to go.
Labor troubadour Anne Feeney headlined a Friday night reception and newly elected Alderwoman and labor activist Susan Sadlowski Garza welcomed attendees to Chicago. Jean Ross, Co-President of the NNU, chaired the opening plenary where USW Vice President Tom Conway gave a thoughtful presentation about the need to take healthcare off the bargaining table. New York Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, the legislative champion of the New York Health single-payer bill, and PNHP’s Claudia Fegan also spoke.
Plenary sessions focused on a critical appraisal of the opportunities and challenges faced by our movement with Congressman Jim McDermott and NNU Director of Public Policy Michael Lighty setting the tone.
Panelists addressed the hard question about what happened in Vermont when the governor announced last winter that he was no longer supporting the implementation of the state’s Green Mountain Care single-payer bill. The emphasis was on the need to not underestimate the forces arrayed against us and to be prepared for that moment in every campaign when victory appears closest and our opponents turn up the heat and try to pull the rug out from under us.
Other panelists discussed the importance of addressing race, class and gender disparities in healthcare and the imperative to include advocates for racial equity and immigrant justice at all levels of our movement.
Attendees participated in fourteen workshops on a wide range of diverse issues. Notes from many of the workshops can be found on the conference wiki page. The conference also hosted the premiere of an important new healthcare movie, FixIt, which makes the business case for single payer.
A Conference of Organizers
But most importantly, this was a conference of organizers who came to share their experiences and learn from each other. Attendees were presented five strategic framing questions at the opening of the conference. In small group discussions and in the closing plenary, these questions were explored in depth.
This conference was a big step forward in building unity and a common agenda for the single-payer movement. Based on the discussions and debates in Chicago, the Labor Campaign will be incorporating many of the conference outcomes into our ongoing work plans. Some of the consensus insights from the conference that will guide our work are:
- The ACA has become the new healthcare status quo and its contradictions create new openings for organizers. These include the Cadillac tax and other provisions that undermine collectively bargained healthcare benefits; stalled Medicaid expansion in the red states as well as privatization threats and underfunding everywhere; immigrant exclusion from most ACA benefits; the growing power of the pharmaceutical industry; and the continued dominance of the private insurance industry.
- The coming election year creates both challenges—as unions and other social movement organizations narrow their focus to candidate-based politics– and opportunities to raise the issue of single-payer Medicare for All by participating in political debates and other events, birddogging candidates, collecting endorsements, etc..
- Opening up new fronts in the healthcare fight will bring in new allies. Some areas that were discussed at the conference are: LGBT health issues, the abuse of injured and ill workers and the crisis in workers compensation and the failures of the healthcare system to provide adequate mental health care.
- We must continue to support all efforts to defend and expand the social insurance model. Many of these efforts, like the movement against the TPP or the fight against cuts and privatization in the postal service, have a strong healthcare component that we should make common cause with.
- Our movement must address the disparities in the healthcare system based on race, class and immigrant status. Every effort must be made to ensure that all levels of our movement reflect the diversity and give voice to the concerns of these justice movements.
- We look for our first real breakthroughs to come at the state level and we will work to build labor participation and support for viable state-level healthcare justice campaigns. Ultimate victory, however, will require the implementation of national healthcare legislation and we will continue to look for opportunities to promote and advance HR 676 and other national legislation.
- We win when we build a social movement. One of the conference participant’s summed it up best: “We’re not the single-payer wing of the healthcare reform movement. We’re the healthcare wing of the social movement.”