Advocates in the fight for health care justice – the ability of everyone to live their healthiest life – have hit the ground running in 2022. Families USA Executive Director Frederick Isasi, put words to that feeling when he opened the organization’s Health Action Conference by saying we are “fighting on every front, fiercely united and mighty as hell” to make sure every living soul in this nation can achieve their best health and health care regardless of their wealth or the color of their skin.
Families USA’s annual Health Action Conference, held this year on Jan. 25-26, kicks off each year with sessions and opportunities for advocates dedicated to the work of fighting for the human right to health care to rejuvenate and energize themselves for the year ahead. During the second consecutive virtual conference, attendees’ energy and commitment to action were palpable even through the computer screens. More than 600 people passionate about making health care affordable and accessible for everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, came together to strategize about how to help every person live their healthiest life.
The conference kicked off with a phenomenal opening session where Isasi welcomed President Joe Biden, who spoke to the importance of fighting for health justice. The president urged the Senate to pass the Build Back Better Act and asserted, once again, “Health care is a right, not a privilege.” He thanked advocates for their efforts to make health care more equitable and said he looked forward to working together in the future.
A panel focused on the fight for racial justice in health care followed President Biden’s remarks. “It’s important that racial justice and disability justice intersect because our liberation is tied to equality, to accessibility, and to equal rights for people with disabilities,” said Ola Ojewumi from Project ASCEND. Monica Simpson from SisterSong outlined a strategy for the future, saying, “We have to have a level of trust in our grassroots communities to lead into new ways of how we do the work. The way we have been doing business isn’t necessarily working. Time for there to be deep trust in leadership in people of color.”
After their discussion, attendees broke into two rounds of workshops to deepen their knowledge and learn new skills. The topics ranged from building equity in COVID vaccine distribution; to exploring policy solutions that could help people in the “coverage gap,” unable to afford Marketplace coverage but ineligible for Medicaid; to how to discuss health justice with journalists. Attendees were able to ask questions and get direct advice by interacting with experts and connecting with each other.
The first day closed out by honoring the Health Justice Advocate of the Year, Dr. Laura Cardus-Guerra, deputy director of Children’s Defense Fund-Texas. Isasi said Cardus-Guerra “is exactly the type of advocate we need for Texas children who cannot vote, lobby, or speak for themselves.” Cardus-Guerra worked directly with patients for years, and her patients’ stories are what drive her to fight inequality and poverty, a message she delivered to attendees. “These stories, these realities, are why we do what we do every day. They are what propel us to keep on fighting, to not give up until every human being is given the dignity of quality, comprehensive health care coverage,” she said.
Day two’s opening session included an appearance from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said, “Health equity is a moral imperative, an economic imperative and a public health imperative in our work to build a brighter, healthier future for all.” She reiterated the president’s point that health care is a human right and reminded attendees that energized and organized advocates need to raise their voices to members of Congress in order to pass key health reforms that would improve the health of people across America.
Attendees also heard from Rep. Kim Schrier, a Democrat from Washington state, who worked as a pediatrician before being elected to Congress, giving her deep knowledge of just how important it is that children have reliable and affordable access to quality health coverage. Schrier has been a lead supporter of efforts to improve the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and reminded the audience of CHIP’s history “as negotiating tool, which is so unfair to do to children and families to make them a pawn in arguments.” She also said legislative efforts to provide CHIP with permanent funding “would give a sigh of relief to families depending on CHIP.”
After a third and fourth round of deep-dive workshops on topics like strategies to help people get health care coverage, creating impactful messaging and addressing high prescription drug costs, everyone reconvened for the final session during which Isasi hosted Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra for a fireside chat. In discussing the current COVID landscape, Becerra said, “With 250 million Americans getting doses of the vaccine, we’re coming together. I feel good about being part of the team to help it get done.” Becerra also had advice for anyone who felt like they have been stuck fighting for health justice without making progress. “Let’s keep making the foxhole a little bit better,” he said “because we need to have as many warriors as we can find behind us.”
The year ahead will likely include a number of high-stakes battles over our health, but thanks to the Health Action Conference, advocates are energized and equipped with an array of new tools to organize for the change we need. Families USA’s 28th annual Health Action Conference will take place next year. If you would like to get on the list to receive registration information, click here to sign up for our Health Action email list.