Author: Esther Bier, MPH(c) Community Health Sciences, Maternal and Child Health

On February 4th, 2019, the New York Times published an article describing how “Medicare-for-all is quickly becoming a rallying cry for many Democratic White House hopefuls.” The article discussed how universal healthcare is the hot topic of the day, one that an increasing number of democratic presidential contenders view as central to gaining public support. Well known democratic candidates such as Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand aim to revamp the US healthcare system to afford every American equal access to healthcare. Meanwhile, centrist candidates such as Howard Schultz and Michael Bloomberg shrug off these democratic ideals as a prohibitively expensive initiative that would reduce overall quality of care.

Despite how unrealistic universal healthcare is in the current political climate, it is telling that the topic is an issue that prominent candidates feel they need to discuss and support. A single-payer system was deemed too extreme during the construction of the Affordable Care Act under the Obama administration – now it is has become a rallying call for mainstream democrats. A remarkable shift has thus taken place among a sizable portion of the American populace: many voters now consider access to healthcare a right instead of a privilege and favor candidates willing to dismantle the current for-profit and bureaucratic system in order to establish a single-payer method.

This was the topic of conversation at the recent workshop entitled “Toward Healthcare for All: The Opportunity to Act Now” organized by Health & Medicine Policy Research Group on January 26th, 2019. On a cold and snowy winter day, roughly two-hundred people crowded into an event space at the Service Employees International Union in Pilsen to participate in this conversation. The event started with a rousing introduction by Claudia Fegan of the Health & Medicine Policy Research Group that reminded participants that universal healthcare means that everyone is included, and nobody is left out. Every medical necessity should be covered (including abortion care) without the burden of copays and deductibles, she said, without proving citizenship or individual worth. Hers was an inspirational talk ahead of challenging conversations about methods to implement change.

The following speaker, Julie Hamos, gave a brief overview of the modern-day healthcare system. The US spends upwards of ten thousand dollars on healthcare per person(regardless of citizenship) every year, drastically more than any other developed country. The system is wildly inefficient and expensive. Every year, tens of thousands of people die due to a lack of healthcare access while others delay visits and reduce their medication intake to limit their financial burden. Individual health is further compounded by a person’s social position (such as the race, class, sex, and educational background) that limits access to resources, sustain poverty, and perpetuate violence. Racism, homophobia, sexist, and ableism worsen the cycle of poor health outcomes for the most vulnerable groups.

Jesse Hoyt next described the healthcare landscape in Illinois and discussed how attacks on the Affordable Care Act, the repeal of the individual mandate, and the decimation of funding for ACA navigators have sought to weaken access for underserved communities. Illinois is witnessing an increase in its uninsured population for the first time in years. Those who are uninsured are more likely to be undocumented residents, people of color, and adults between the ages of nineteen and sixty-four. Women and children, groups who disproportionately experience poverty, are the hardest hit by lack of insurance. Universally providing healthcare to every woman and child would drastically reduce infant and maternal mortality – rates of which US are shockingly high (and preventable). Workshop participants were left to imagine what the country would look like if every woman had equitable access to birth control, paid maternity leave, and prenatal care. How would our overall health and economy improve if every child could see a dentist, a family doctor, and a mental health counseling whenever they needed?

The event closed with a talk by state representative Greg Harris who discussed current initiatives that will move us towards a single-payer system. Any money set aside to improve access to care should not be taken from funds designated for head start, paid family leave, or school improvements. We cannot uplift one segment of the population on the backs of others who deserve support of their own. A graduated income tax should be implemented and corporate tax holes (that allow 60% of corporations in Illinois to pay no taxes) should be closed.

There are tangible and realistic ways to make universal healthcare in America a reality. The process will be long, challenging, and likely painful but the benefits will be hugely rewarding. Ensuring every American resident has access to care will protect the most at need: women, children, people of color, those with disabilities, etc. The public deserves a thoughtful debate about different plans to create a Medicare-for-all system while holding elected officials accountable to the demands of their constituents and responsible for making this country an equitable place for all residents to live. This workshop served as a helpful reminder of local partners working together in this fight, what we have accomplished that bring us closer to success, and the work left to complete in order to make healthcare for all a reality for the nation.