Dr. Stephen Smith told the crowd a little story.
The doctor and his wife recently turned 60 and went to a pharmacy for shingles shots. Their insurer, Anthem, rejected the claim saying the insurance giant doesn’t reimburse pharmacists for vaccinations. Smith, of the Community Health Center in New London, told the insurer a nurse administered the shot. But that explanation still didn’t pass muster, and the Smiths paid the $250 tab.
“That’s why we need a public option—NOW. We need to keep those guys (insurers) honest,” Smith said.
No one disagreed. About 150 health-care reform activists rallied with Smith outside of Aetna’s sprawling campus on Farmington Avenue Tuesday afternoon. They came to ask CEO Ronald Williams to sign a pledge promising to stop denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, to stop denying care when customers get sick, and to not lobby against health-reform proposals supported by President Obama and his allies in Congress, especially a provision for a public health option.
The demonstration was one of 150 across the country, simultaneously protesting unhealthy insurance practices and yelling for change in the way this country does medicine.
Health Care for America Now organized the national event, dubbed “Big Insurance: Sick of It.” Connecticut grassroots groups and labor unions were behind the Aetna gathering.
Before attempting to deliver the written pledge to CEO Williams, the crowd chanted and marched in a circle carrying signs. Citizen actors put on entertaining skits, based on true-life patient-horror stories. Demonstrators lined the sidewalk holding high their signs as cars whizzed by honking horns in agreement. The only thing missing from the lively and civil event was teabaggers.
“Big Insurance Sick of It!” “Don’t Let the Fat Cats Win! Reform Now!” “Aetna’s Profits Are Making Me Sick!” read the signs.
According to news sources, the health insurance industry is spending about $5 million a week to fight reform; CEO Williams earned $24.3 million last year; and nearly 46 million in the United States are uninsured, with 343,000 living in Connecticut.
“We’ve heard insurers say they’re for reform,” Tom Swan, of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, yelled out to demonstrators. “But what is their reform? Don’t Get Sick!”
Sixteen-year-old demonstrator Ever Teran of Hartford told this reporter he’s scared. “I want a public option. In my case, my mom lost her job (and insurance coverage). I’m working part-time and going to high school. Now I’m afraid, what happens if I get sick? What happens if my mom gets sick? I’ll have to drop out of school and get a (full-time) job,” he said.
“We have the most expensive and least effective health care in the world,” said Ray Elling of Farmington, a retired professor of comparative health systems at UConn Health Center and member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
And the crowd kept chanting.
“Can we do it?” yelled Steve Thornton, of Local 1199 of the Health Care Workers Union.
“Yes we can!” the 150 or so yelled back.
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
CEO Williams could not be reached for comment. Aetna spokesperson Cynthia Michener answered questions emailed to her. Asked for the company’s response to the rally, she wrote:
“When you put yourself out there on an issue like Aetna has on health reform, you make yourself a target. But there is more agreement than disagreement on the need to get reform done, and we need to work together to reach solutions in health care reform and make this future a reality. We look forward to continue working with interested groups to get reform done this year.”
Asked to outline her company’s reform agenda and lobbying efforts, Michener responded:
“Broadly, Aetna’s goals are to get everyone covered, improve the quality of health outcomes and provide better value for each dollar spent on care. We’re committed to guarantee coverage without regard to pre-existing conditions along with an individual requirement to get everyone in the system and subsidies for those who can’t afford it.
“We support reform and are putting our lobbying dollars toward engaging in the reform discussion to ensure we get the best health care possible for all Americans. In addition to health care reform, we have spent money to get bills passed that improve the health care system, including: mental health parity; increased access for generic drugs; and genetic non-discrimination.”
But according to Forbes.com, Aetna hasn’t been doing such a good job. From ” … 2001 to 2006, after which Williams took over, the company went from losing $266 million to earning $1.7 billion. The turnaround was mostly credited to the decision by Williams to dump millions of members who were deemed unprofitable.”
With Democratic and Republican legislators duking it out in Washington over what a health-reform bill should look like, and with the creation of a public option on life support, activists say they remain optimistic. They point to the passage of Connecticut’s SustiNet bill this past July, a universal health-care reform with a public option.
“This is clearly the best chance we’ve had in half a century (for national reform) and we don’t intend to lose it,” said Peter Thor of Norwalk, a member of Council 4, AFSCME. “The public option is critical because we need an effective tool to curb the for-profit health insurance agencies. Their behavior is obscene.”
A fellow demonstrator also remarked on the morality of the industry.
“It’s a moral issue,” said Rev. Brendan McCormick of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Ivoryton. “Therefore, the faith community needs to speak out. The question is not can we afford it, it’s we cannot afford not to have it.”
Juan Figueroa, president of the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut, gave the final hurrah at the hour-and-a-half-long rally, speaking passionately and charismatically about the cause at hand.
Then, in Michael Moore-esque fashion, Dr. Smith, Rev. McCormick and activist Joella Bouchard Mudry marched toward the front door of CEO Williams’ castle demanding he sign the pledge. But, like the documentarian’s attempts to speak in person to CEOs, the threesome was stopped by security before reaching the steps.
“Maybe some see us as being David up against Goliath. Maybe we are,” said Val McCall, state director of Organizing for Connecticut, one of the groups behind Tuesday’s rally. “There is no doubt in my mind that with the iron-clad unity we have forged, we will win, this year, right now.”