Health care activists vow to continue struggle

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PHILADELPHIA - Pennsylvania congressman and senatorial candidate Joe Sestak told a Dec. 21 gathering of 75 health care activists here that his Navy experience with government-run health care had persuaded him that a public option is a crucial part of any reform. In America today 94 percent of insurance markets are non-competitive, he said, and "with a public option you break that monopoly. The public option would restore fairness for the working class in the health care market."

Sestak noted that he, as well as all the men and women who served under him in the Navy and their families, had health coverage. He continued, "Imagine a workforce that had the security of that coverage." Sestak's daughter, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor at the age of 4, received the treatment she needed, he said, and she is now "8 going on 22 ... you all in this room gave me my daughter!"

The rally was organized by Health Care for America Now (HCAN) and was called to make the point that health care activists well understand that the Senate's health care bill is not the end of the struggle. Mark Stier, Pennsylvania director of HCAN, said, "We may not get everything we want now, but we will get it sooner rather than later because of all the work we've done."

In addition to Rep. Sestak, the gathering heard a lineup of speakers representing labor and women's rights groups as well as representatives of other Pennsylvania legislators. Several speakers argued that, while the Senate bill was in many ways disappointing, the fight is not over. Wendell Young IV, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, told the spirited crowd, "We need a bill that is going to cover every American and we are going to keep fighting until we get it!"

Liz McElroy of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO Central Labor Council said, "It's been a real fight on the ground ... we want and will continue to fight for the best in both (the House and the Senate) bills. We are confident that the Pennsylvania delegation will do the right thing, and we need to continue to remind them."

Two speakers stressed the importance of fighting to protect women's right to choice and reproductive health. Kati Sipp, political director of SEIU Healthcare PA, said her union represents many home care workers who themselves have had no health insurance for decades. "Reform must protect the working class and the rights of women," she emphasized. Susan Schewel, executive director of the Women's Medical Fund, also stressed the need for health care reform to protect women's reproductive rights. The WMF is a member of Raising Women's Voices of Southeastern PA, a coalition of 26 organizations working to insure that the voices of women are heard during the debate on health care reform.

Photo: Rep. Joe Sestak addresses the rally. Behind him is UFCW Local 1776 President Wendell Young. (PW/Ben Sears)