WASHINGTON DC—A handful of Connecticut activists joined thousands of like-minded souls in Washington, D.C., Tuesday to get in the face of the health-insurance lobby during its annual policy conference at the swanky Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Activists’ intent was to make a so-called citizens arrest of the industry for its “criminal” practices, such as using pre-existing conditions to deny coverage, while pushing for health care reform – NOW!
Under sunny skies, the roughly 3,000 protesters lived up to their promise to be loud and aggressive. Perched outside the downtown hotel, they chanted, screamed, banged drums and struggled against security and police to crash the America’s Health Insurance Plans conference. There were no arrests or injuries, and many said their spirit and energy were refueled to continue the fight for health care reform, after feeling somewhat dejected after Massachusetts’ Scott Brown’s election to the Senate in February, upsetting the Democrats’ supermajority to sidestep a Republican filibuster of a health care bill.
In the beginning
Twenty activists and seniors from Connecticut and Rhode Island hopped a Greyhound just after midnight Monday headed to D.C. to join a national protest, organized locally by Connecticut Citizen’s Action Group, Connecticut Health Care For American Now!, AFSCME, the Alliance for Retired Americans and other political and grassroots groups.
David Desiderato, field director for Northeast Action, was in charge. As the bus headed south, he was asked if he was surprised that only 20 folks were onboard. “No,” he said. “It’s hard for people to give up a day and a half from their families.”
Will the protest make a difference, considering that the national mood for health reform has shifted from enthusiastic to at best guarded. “I think everything makes a difference,” Desiderato said.
Mary Elia, Connecticut field staff for the Alliance for Retired Americans, was on the bus with a few of her members. She said she’s noticed a change in her friends’ attitudes about the need for reform, and attributed that shift to Mr. Murdoch’s TV dominance.
“Many seniors, some my friends, who were strong supporters of the Obama agenda and health care, are slowly dropping off. And when they do, I hear the phrases I hear on Fox news shows like ‘Glenn Beck,’” she said.
“It seems when the phrasing is exactly the same as you hear on this well-financed, well-orchestrated campaign vilifying Obama and (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi … they’re being told what to think. It’s been disturbing. Opinion has changed based on distortions and lies,” Elia said.
The $20 breakfast
The Greyhound pulled into D.C. at 6:40 a.m. Tuesday. Desiderato gave a little pep talk to the weary travelers. They were to meet for the protest at Dupont Circle at 10:30 a.m. Lots of time – and bucks – to kill. The older members of the group breakfasted at Café Dupont, right across from the Circle. There was Lillian Sewell of Southington, Lorraine Varley of Meriden, Diane Fisk of Berlin – all retired AFSCME members – Elia, and Fletcher Fischer, the cameraman.
All ordered some pricey eggs, except Fischer, who got oatmeal with berries.
Asked why they came to protest, Fisk said, “I have children and grandchildren and I think it’s important for them to have health care. My daughter’s always on the phone with her insurance company fighting to get procedures covered for her and her kids.”
Tuesday, it was grandma’s chance to do some fighting.
The Insurance giants were up too
Meanwhile, AHIP’s 2010 National Policy Forum was just getting underway at the Ritz. According to its program, topics to be discussed included “Health Reform: Where Are We Now and Where Are We Headed?”, “Can Accountable Care Organizations Improve the Value of Health Care by Solving the Cost and Quality Conundrum?”, “Health Care Reform: What Role Does the Media Play?”
To the thousands of protestors, the conference meant one thing: “How Do We Defeat the Socialists’ Health Reform Agenda?”
It was 10:30 a.m. at Dupont Circle. New and old hippies dominated the scene, carrying protest signs, doing street theater, chanting and singing for health reform and against for-profit health insurers. The fatigued Connecticut contingency was starting to wake up. Like the H1N1 virus, the energy was contagious.
Many carried signs fashioned like wanted posters, each with the picture and name of an HMO CEO, and the reasons for the arrest, such as denial of care, increasing premium costs, and so on. According to recent media reports, the five biggest health insurers made a $12-billion profit in 2009, up from $8 billion the year before. AHIP is reportedly spending $5 million a week to defeat the Democrats’ health-reform effort.
At 11:15 a.m. marching orders to the nearby Ritz Hotel were given. Protesters were split up into teams. Connecticut was on the red team.
“What do we want?” an organizer shouted.
“Health care!” the crowd dutifully shot back.
“When do we want it?”
Marching down New Hampshire Avenue to the health-insurance lobby’s shindig, the totally revved-up crowd sang loud and furiously.
“Hey, hey, ho, ho! Big Insurance has go to go. Hey, hey, ho, ho! Big Insurance has go to go.”
Overhead, a helicopter circled the protest during its duration. On ground, cops lined the sidewalks and formed a barricade in front of the hotel. Media were not allowed in, save for a CNN correspondent.
Where was Dean?
A bevy of charismatic religious and union leaders addressed the thousands of hungry health-care proponents. But the star speaker, former Vermont Governor and Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean, was MIA. No explanation was given.
“We’re arresting the health-insurance industry today for criminal practices,” one of the speakers yelled into a mic. “Giving out big bonuses while 67 million go without insurance.”
“This is our moment, my friends! We have to get it now,” said another speaker. “We are here because the health-care insurance executives are there in the Ritz plotting and scheming” to destroy reform. “We are here to make a citizens arrest. No longer we will be held hostage!”
A framed arrest warrant for the executives was read aloud. “The People of the United States vs the CEOs of major insurers and AHIP,” it began.
The crowd was then deputized by holding up their right hands.
“Now go out and do your duty!” they were commanded.
And they went in for the kill.
Everyone stormed the front entrance of the Ritz, held back by an impenetrable wall of police. A few protesters were taken away from crossing the line, but were not actually arrested. They were led to the other side of the hotel.
Someone holding the framed arrest warrant told the guard he wanted to bring it to the AHIP conference. The mob chanted: “Take it inside! Take it inside!’ He was allowed to deliver it inside.
A “vilified,” voiceless lobby
At 1:11 p.m. the protest abruptly ended. Though there were thousands, they left behind very little litter. Though they were highly spirited, there was no violence of any kind. Just smiles.
CNN correspondent Jim Acosta covered both the inside and outside of the event. Asked how conference attendees were reacting to the protest he said, “The told us they thought they were being vilified. The said they’re for health-care reform, but when I asked them what that is, they didn’t answer.”
Tom Swan, executive director of Connecticut Citizens Action Group, called the protest a success. “We know we disrupted their conference,” he said, standing just outside the Ritz. “We clearly redefined sides (of the health-care debate). We saw a willingness to take more drastic action.”
Before checking out, the Connecticut faction went to the Capital to visit some of its congressmen. No appointments had been made in advance.
First they knocked on Democratic U.S. Rep. John Larson’s door. He wasn’t home, but two of his aides were.
“I know the congressman is absolutely ready to pass a bill,” said David Sitcovsky. “In exchange, we ask for support from the grassroots groups in Connecticut.”
Neither U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney nor U.S. Rep. Jim Himes were around.
And the little group that could and did, returned to the Greyhound to carry them home.