Religious and business leaders, labor union representatives, and health care professionals gathered in Meriden Wednesday to hear about the politics of universal health care from three advocates that helped make it reality in their own states.
In Maine Gov. John Baldacci made universal health care part of his campaign in 2002. Once he was elected he created a group to study the issue in depth and make a proposal to the legislature, Joseph Ditre, executive director of Consumers for Affordable Health Care in Maine, said. The study group was comprised of members from a diverse constituency, which helped bring both parties to the table to discuss and ultimately approve the initiative in 2003, Ditre said. Massachusetts came about its plan a little differently. Susan Sherry, deputy director of Community Catalyst, said they were faced with the challenge of creating the political momentum to get the parties to take up the issue. She said the political will came from the support of the ballot question and the potential loss of $385 million in federal funds. Sherry said the grassroots effort in Massachusetts included both consumer advocates and business leaders. “They gave the legislature powerful incentive to act,” she said. There’s no doubt in Nancy Burton’s mind that Connecticut is headed in that direction. Burton is a midwife who also works at a free clinic. Recently plenty of women from the wealthy suburbs of Avon and Farmington have made their way to the clinic for treatment, she said. She said most of these women never thought they’d have to come to a clinic funded by a grant. She said this shows the crisis has reached more of the population. Burton said she knows two women who knew they had breast cancer, didn’t have health insurance and didn’t come in for treatment. “They figured they were just going to die,” she said. As these stories become more and more prevalent, it’s obvious even to leaders in the business community that universal health care is necessary. Tony Sheridan, president of the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, said 82 percent of their 1,200 members say the affordability of health care is their number one concern. “If you’re an employer that has preventative health care, you’re going to have less absenteeism and a more productive staff,” he said Wednesday. There’s a competitive concern too, he said. “If we don’t have healthy workers we can’t compete in the economy.” While the jury is still out on which approach to affordable health care is best, it’s become obvious something needs to be done, Sheridan said. Earlier this week Meriden City Council passed a resolution to become the first municipality to call for the creation of a universal health care system in the state. This was part of the reason the Universal Health Care Foundation and its parent corporation, Connecticut Health Advancement and Research Trust held the panel discussion in Meriden Wednesday. But the concept of universal health care was introduced by at least two of the candidates running for election this November. Democratic gubernatorial candidate, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. and U.S. senate candidate Ned Lamont have released universal health care plans as part of their campaign effort. Democratic leadership in the state legislature has also said they will look at a universal health care in the next legislative session.