Photograph by Linda Greene

While singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer tunes up, retired steelworker Steve Skavara (left) and the California Nurses Association's Donna Smith (center), prepare to speak to a single-payer rally in Indianapolis. About 50 people attended the protest outside the for-profit health insurance giant Anthem Wellpoint annual shareholders meeting.

INDIANAPOLIS - Chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Anthem WellPoint’s got to go” on an uncharacteristically cold and rainy May 17, about 50 people gathered from across Indiana in front of the Indianapolis City Market.

The occasion was the annual rally for single-payer health care, sponsored by Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan (HCHP), Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana (CAC), Jobs with Justice, Indiana chapter of the AFL-CIO, the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Health Care and Physicians for a National Health Plan.

As in the past, the rally followed WellPoint’s annual stockholders’ meeting. WellPoint is a giant health insurance company based in Indianapolis.

Bloomington singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer started off with a song and some comments. Single-payer, she said, “is not a liberal or conservative issue but a family issue, a community issue. It’s about compassion and about the society we hope to live in and wish to create.”

Julia Vaughn, from Common Cause, pointed out that tens of thousands of people die each year in this country from having no or inadequate health insurance, yet Angela Braly, CEO of WellPoint, earns $13.5 million a year, or $100,000 per day.

Cost, Vaughn said, is the greatest obstacle to adequate health care.

“The time for politeness is gone”; we have to “raise our voices and raise a stink,” she said. We can’t trust health insurers to look out for our health when their only goal is profits, she said.

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Dr. Rob Stone, a Bloomington emergency physician and cofounder of HCHP, attended the WellPoint stockholders’ meeting that morning. He reported the meeting was “tightly controlled” and “totally scripted,” with protection from armed guards.
"The time for politeness is gone. We have to raise our voices and raise a stink." - Julia Vaughn, Common Cause
“They’re afraid,” he asserted, “of us getting any voice.” They go through the motions of holding the meeting each year “because if they don’t, it will look as if we’ve won something.”

At the stockholders’ meeting last year, Stone said, he and other stockholders, or what he said was “an intrepid band of people who bought shares of WellPoint stock so they could attend the meeting, “offered a resolution for the company to fund a feasibility study of returning WellPoint to its original, nonprofit roots. That resolution was a surprise to the intrepid band: it received 9.6 percent, or 30 million shares, of the vote.

Stone vowed to bring the resolution back to next year’s stockholders’ meeting and again the following year. Citizens, he said, “will continue to expose the activity of these parasitic middlemen who add no value to our health care system.” The sole reason for the health insurance industry’s existence it “to serve their shareholders, not patients, doctors or hospitals.” A single-payer system, he added, would mean “everybody in, nobody out, and good-bye to the health insurance industry.”

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Karen Kay Leonard, president of the League of Women Voters of Indiana, said the league has been advocating a single-payer health plan since the early 1990s. “Change that’s worthwhile often happens slowly and takes a long time,” she said. She urged the crowd to cultivate “a wishbone and a funnybone,” the former for providing hope and vision and the latter for helping activists “keep some perspective.”
"Universal health care and private insurance company profits are incompatible." - Donna Smith, California Nurses Association

Vaughn added, “This fight for single-payer isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. … Ultimately what we’re fighting for will win because it makes sense and is just and right.”

Steve Skavara, a retired steelworker from Northwest Indiana, noted that he had the “Cadillac” of health care plans -- Medicare. “When you have people dying because of no health care, it’s not the best health care system in the world.”

National organizer for the National Nurses Union -- the largest union of health care professionals in the country -- and an organizer for the California Nurses Association, Donna Smith was profiled in Michael Moore’s film SiCKO. She and her husband had to file for bankruptcy because her health insurance didn’t cover their medical expenses.

Smith said her story could be told thousands of times, and the federal health care act that passed last year didn’t provide access to medical care or immunity from financial trauma. “We bailed out the industry. They want everyone in their ‘profit pool.’ … The health care act forced us to purchase a defective financial product. That’s not what I had in mind when thinking about universal health care.”

Smith said 2,337 Americans declare bankruptcy every day, and approximately 1,275 of them have health insurance that didn’t pay for a medical crisis. In the United States. 123 people die every day for lack of health care, she said.

As to the creation of single-payer in this country, “None of us know when the tipping point will happen,” she said. “We know we’re moving very closer to it now. … Universal health care and private insurance company profits are incompatible. We can’t get to one with the other in place, so speak truth to power.”

The insurance industry is afraid of single-payer proponents, she said. “In their heart they know what they’re doing is wrong, and it’s up to us to stand up and point that out.”

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"It’s about compassion and about the society we hope to live in and wish to create." - Carrie Newcomer, singer/songwriterVaughn closed the rally by exhorting the crowd to “change the system.” In addition to health care, we have to change the campaign finance system, in which “corporations get to control the process and get their friends elected.” We need to strive for public financing of political campaigns, and we also need lobbying reform, she said, “because it’s not a fair fight. … “They’re using our premium dollars against us in the fight for reform.”

Complain to and challenge the industry, Vaughn recommended. When a health insurance company demands a 20 percent rate increase, let them know it’s not acceptable. “If they deny your claim, challenge it,” she said. “File a grievance because, folks, they want you to just go away.”

“Single-payer is the only thing that will bring universal coverage to all Americans that we as individuals, and as a nation, can afford,” Vaughn said. “It’s been this way since Harry Truman first proposed single-payer in the 1940s. It’s the same -- it’s the only solution today, in 2011.”

Linda Greene can be reached at lgreene@bloomington.in.us.