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Monday, March 1, 2010

Melanie's March: A reflection

Kate Blocher

Staff Writer

Last week, a few of my colleagues and I had the honor of meeting up with a group of 10 dedicated health care activists from Philadelphia Unemployment Project and Pennsylvania HCAN who were finishing up the last leg of a 150 mile march from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. Melanie's March, named after an avid health reform activist, Melanie Shouse, who recently passed away from breast cancer, sought to show legislators just how urgently we need health reform.

We began the march, bright and early in College Park, Maryland. Along the way, marchers told us stories of the support they received throughout the past eight days. One driver stopped to tell them that she had three adult children, all uninsured, and God bless them for what they were doing. Then there were also the countless honks and cheers they heard as they walked, and walked, and walked. Even in the few short hours that we walked, we came across numerous drivers and pedestrians who all supported our cause as well as people who wanted to tell us their health care stories. As we marched to the Capitol, not only did we know we had the support of the American people behind us, but we knew that they needed this reform now more than ever.

We marched through D.C. and ended up at Union Station, where we were met by over 200 activists ready to march to Capitol Hill to tell Congress to finish health reform now and finish it right! Before we left Union Station, we handed out 1,000 carnations in honor of the number of people who had died during the eight days of the march due to lack of health insurance coverage.

As we left the center circle of Union Station and made our way over to the Dirksen Senate building, we were surrounded by chants of "What do we want - heath care! When do we want it? NOW!" that resounded throughout Capitol Hill. We were pretty hard to miss, which couldn't be better. Everyone working in those buildings needed to know that it was time to finish health reform, and there were a lot of loud, angry Americans who were ready to tell them why.

We were then joined by a group of inspiring speakers that included Senators, Representatives, leaders in the health reform community, and most importantly members of Melanie Shouse's family as well as those who have suffered at the hands of our broken health care system.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) opened up the event with friends and family of Melanie Shouse. He made it clear where he stood on health reform by saying, "Health care is not about political parties fighting with each other, it's about people fighting for their lives." He was followed by key members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee: Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA), Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT), Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA). Senator Harkin, the Chairman of the HELP committee, mirrored Senator Reid's remarks stating:

"People always talk about the dollars and cents [of health reform]... It's time to get down to the nub of it. The fact that we have 45 million uninsured people is a moral blight on our nation!"

Senator Reid and the Senators from the HELP committee were followed by many other moving speakers like Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Representative Rob Andrews (D-NJ), Andy Stern of SEIU, and Ron Pollack of Families USA who got the crowd going with chants of "Yes we WILL!"

But by far, the most poignant speakers were those who were there to tell their own health care story like Regina, from right here in Washington, D.C., who had to watch her husband die from kidney cancer, caused by a minor urinary condition that could have been fixed by an elective surgery. But because neither of them had insurance, not due to unemployment, but due to the wrong employment, her husband never received care until it was too late. And even when he was hospitalized, because he was uninsured, they wouldn't even let him pass comfortably in a hospital, under the care of a doctor. He was sent home to die.

Or Marcus, who was a teacher at a charter school and could no longer afford to pay his premiums after they were raised $300. Like millions of Americans, he took a gamble and went without it. Marcus is diabetic, but he thought he was healthy enough, that he'd be okay, but he was wrong. Marcus lost his vision. Though the vision loss was reversible by surgery, the surgeon needed a $3,000 down payment. Marcus did not have that kind of money, and with no insurance, he was unable to get the surgery. Now, he is permanently blind and on disability. Ironically, the government will have to pay millions over the course of his life for his care, just because he couldn't afford to get insurance that would help him pay the $3,000.

These people are the reason we must continue to fight. These people are the reason Congress must continue to fight. As the Congressmen who visited us Wednesday left, we hope they took Melanie's, Regina's, and Marcus's stories with them along with the knowledge that there are millions of Americans just like them who need them to finish this job and bring health reform across the finish line once and for all.