The Struggle of Our Time
This Op-Ed Appeared in the September 6, 2009 edition of the Bennington Banner.
For the last several weeks, media coverage of the healthcare reform debate has been dominated by images of angry disruptions of congressional town hall meetings by those opposed to reform. In Vermont, by contrast, the three town hall meetings held in August by Sen. Bernie Sanders were civil, and by all accounts, the majority of those in the audience supported reform based on the principle that healthcare is a human right.
Hundreds of people came out to these events to declare their support for the basic right to healthcare and with such a huge amount of support for fundamental change, the people opposing so-called "socialized medicine" were clearly a very small fragment of the community at these events.
For over a year, the Vermont Workers Center and a growing grassroots movement of hundreds of working and low-income Vermonters have been building the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign. What does it mean to say that healthcare is a "human right?" It means recognition of the equal and inalienable right of all members of the human family to the best possible physical and mental health, and to the quality medical care, healthy environment, adequate and nutritious food, and safe working conditions which are necessary to achieve it.
The concept of inalienable rights is found not only in international agreements such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but in one of the founding documents of our own country, the Declaration of Independence, which insists that human beings have "certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." In the course of our campaign, we have spoken with thousands of Vermonters from all walks of life, and an overwhelming majority of them agreed with us that healthcare is a human right.
What stands in the way of securing recognition for the human right to health is the continuation of a business model of healthcare, in which medical care is treated as a commodity, and the paramount goal of health insurance is to make profits for the companies that offer it. For our rights to be respected, healthcare must be seen as a public good, and policies -- such as single-payer health insurance -- must be enacted that guarantee everyone's right to access that public good.
It seems clear that whatever "reforms" come out of the federal government, they will not meet even the most basic human rights standards of universality, equity and accountability. It is up to us in Vermont to keep the momentum going for fundamental change. Even though single-payer universal healthcare saves money and is the most responsible way to finance a healthcare system, we will not win it because of clever policy arguments.
Labor Day is celebrated to recognize working peoples struggles the contributions and struggles for things like the eight-hour-day, Social Security, the end of child labor and even the weekend itself. Healthcare is, for us in the U.S., the major human rights struggle of our time. Vermont policy makers, heavily influenced by the wealth of those invested by the status quo, will offer many excuses why its not possible and this year is not the time.
However, just like struggles for civil rights, women's rights, LGBTQ rights and disability rights, it calls on us to build a broad movement, led by those most affected by injustice, and organized around a moral and ethical commitment to a better society. We will only win real healthcare reform that respects the human right to health when enough people join in a grassroots movement to insist that all human lives are valued, every single one equally, all the time.
James Haslam is the Director of the Vermont Workers Center, a statewide workers' rights organization based in Burlington, and coordinates the Healthcare Is A Human Right Campaign, which has hundreds of grass-roots leaders and regional organizing committees now in eight Vermont counties. More information is available at www.workerscenter.org/healthcare. The Workers Center is an organization of Vermont working and low-income families committed to building a grass-roots movement for workplace rights and justice.