In January, Ricky Dunlop and Shareef Snuggs held signs on the streets of Queens, just the two of them, advocating for Medicare for All. According to Dunlop, their efforts came when Sen. Bernie Sanders’ loss in the 2020 Democratic primary appeared to squash hopes for universal health care and when COVID-19 ravaged the globe. Dunlop said the issue could not wait for another candidate like Sanders to bring the topic back to the forefront.
Just over half a year later, the March for Medicare for All organizers were in good company with their largest event to date: Activists from over 50 cities nationwide took to the streets last Saturday under the same banner.
“It caught fire,” Dunlop said of the March for Medicare for All campaign. “It tells you that Medicare for All is really important. … This wouldn’t be what it is if people didn’t care about this.”
Dunlop says Washington was among the first places to “catch fire.” On Saturday, July 24, supporters in Seattle marched from Westlake Center to Seattle Center. About 60 miles south, supporters in Olympia gathered at the state Capitol building.
These two Washington cities are both key for these advocates to realize their goals on the national and statewide stage. Seattle is represented by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA-7), who is the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the sponsor of the latest Medicare for All legislation in the U.S. House. Olympia, Washington’s capital, is the hub of state policy making and thus a landmark for the continued efforts to reform health care in Washington.
“It’s not going to be about one candidate or one bill or one state or one campaign, but about the work that everybody’s doing added up,” said the lead organizer of Seattle’s march, Andre Stackhouse. “This is about helping us build our organizations, both locally and nationally, to actually mobilize people to take Medicare for All on as an important issue to them.”
Nationally, March for Medicare for All has three demands for the U.S. government: Pass medicare for all, recognize health care as a human right and prioritize health care first in the federal budget. If these demands are not met by Aug. 6, the organization will file a human rights violation complaint with the United Nations.
According to Stackhouse, Jayapal’s H.R.1976, introduced in March, is considered the “gold standard” for universal health care policy. Jayapal’s bill has only garnered the support of one of her Washington colleagues, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA-9).
Stackhouse pointed to Derek Kilmer (D-WA-6), who fellow Democrat Rebecca Parson challenged in a 2020 primary by calling Kilmer “a Joe Manchin Democrat.” Manchin is a moderate senator from West Virginia who has become a must-have swing vote for partisan issues. Parson lost the primary, but as she is, in Stackhouse’s words, “a reliable supporter” of Medicare for all, she spoke at the Seattle march.
Jayapal’s legislation is cosponsored by 117 House Democrats, which is about 100 votes short of a majority. The bill would need almost all 220 House Democrats’ votes to push the highly-partisan bill to the Senate, which is under even narrower Democratic control and relies on Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote and two independents who caucus with Democrats. President Joe Biden has said that even then, he would veto Medicare for All, as he would rather expand the Affordable Care Act — one of the largest projects of the Obama administration and one Biden lobbied for strongly.
Courtney Love, a board member for the universal health care advocacy group Whole Washington, called herself an “eternal optimist” when it came to Jayapal’s legislation, but quickly amended to “pragmatic optimist.”
“I’m definitely going to push for [the legislation],” Love said. “However, I don’t see a timely pathway for it, which leads me to look for an alternative path.”
Stackhouse said there are clear ways for Washington to establish a statewide Medicare for All.
In the legislative session held earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a measure that will establish a commission to build the “preliminary infrastructure” for a universal health care system “once the necessary federal authority has become available.” The commission will comprise legislators, state officials and people Inslee selects through an equity lens.
Love says this commission is not enough.
“The commission is allowed to study health care options up to and including single-payer,” Love said. “It does not mean that that’s what we’re going to get.”
Whole Washington, the first endorser of March for Medicare for All, helped draft a separate bill last session that would create a health care trust, allowing everyone in the state to access affordable health care, vision care, dental and mental-health care — no commission necessary.
While the bill did not make it out of committee this session, the organization is pushing a near identical initiative. If Whole Washington can collect 400,000 signatures by December, that indirect initiative will go to the legislature, where three things could happen: the legislators adopt it; they reject it, and the initiative goes to the next general statewide ballot; or they reject it and provide an alternative to join the original on the ballot.
For Love, and certainly for many other supporters at the March for Medicare For All, time is of the essence. Her brother had a lifetime of health issues and died of an undiagnosed heart complication in 2019.
“I think about not just his end, but also his beginning and how his life could have been improved or lengthened via a different health care system,” Love said.
Read more of the July 28 - Aug. 3, 2021 issue.