Government is not going to act on its own to reverse this crisis. The best hope for preventing tragedies, and perhaps for jump-starting the dormant forces for healthcare rights, may, therefore, lie in local struggles such as the one in Atlanta. It began in typical grassroots fashion, with informal discussions and coalescing among a few concerned community members: the Rev. Ed Loring and the Rev. Murphy Davis of the Open Door homeless advocacy group; the Rev. Tim McDonald of Concerned Black Clergy; Stewart Acuff of the Atlanta Labor Council and Jobs With Justice; and a group of Grady doctors. As the group built support among local residents--patients and parishioners; blacks, whites and Latinos; students and workers; city and state political figures--informal discussions evolved into strategy sessions in which the group planned actions ranging from quietly lobbying hospital officials and politicians to disrupting public meetings with demonstrations and sit-ins.
Sixteen days after the demonstration at Grady, about 150 coalition members packed into a Fulton County Commission meeting, determined to force officials to consider additional funding for the hospital pharmacy. As protesters waved placards and chanted, the commission members agreed to put the measure on the agenda. They subsequently approved an additional $3.5 million.
With that victory, advocates turned to the DeKalb County Commission, where they demonstrated on the streets and interrupted the meeting in chambers with a bullhorn, resulting in the arrest of seven people. Two weeks later, 200 protesters returned to the commission chambers, singing "This Little Light of Mine" and engaging in one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in the city since the civil rights movement. Thirty were arrested, and ten (some of whom had been arrested in the previous incident) spent the night in jail, while outside their supporters rallied, played jazz gospel music and stood vigil all night long. After a series of private meetings between advocates and commissioners, the county agreed to budget an additional $1.1 million for the pharmacy.
Grady has temporarily rescinded the $10 per drug co-pay policy. The campaign has also prompted the city's media to begin investigating the crisis of medications for the poor, the elderly and low-wage workers. With each success, the coalition is growing. Its leaders, along with patients and politicians, have ongoing strategy sessions to identify additional targets: hospitals that refer their indigent patients to Grady, businesses with inadequate healthcare programs for their employees, county commissions that do not support their medically indigent populations, the state government and the US Congress. On July 22 a throng marched on the State Capitol to raise the cry of the medically indigent throughout Georgia. Ultimately, Reverend McDonald envisions Americans from all walks of life marching on Washington to catalyze a national demand for healthcare justice.
Corporate profits may be higher, and the Dow Jones may soar. Jobs may be more plentiful, but workers' security is tenuous and disaster could be around any corner. Every month 100,000 Americans lose their health insurance. In the most vulnerable position are the disabled, the old people on fixed incomes, the people with chronic illnesses and those who are very poor or just skating along the edge of poverty. Americans demand seat belts on buses because they've been swerving off the highway. They contribute to disaster victims, or to children stuck in wells, or to the loved ones of students massacred in high schools. But those who are healthy cannot see the suffering of those who worry over how they'll pay for the lifesaving drugs they need every day.
We must tell these stories to Americans. We must make noise. We must make news. Strategic coalitions like the one in Atlanta don't just happen. They must be built, and there must be hundreds of them, to address this problem not only with respect to public hospitals but wherever it surfaces, at whatever level, public or private. The healthcare crisis is a true scandal, and it may take public funerals of those dying from lack of medication to dramatize its consequences.