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Education Activists Rally for Health Care


Attendees press Congress to reform a system that leaves 47 million people without coverage


by Emilie Openchowski


 
When thousands converged on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Thursday for the Great American Sickout, health care reform was the menu, but it was Congress that was on the grill.

The rally, organized by the Health Care for America Now coalition, which includes the National Education Association, attracted up to 10,000 activists from across the country who endured sweltering heat to demand affordable, quality health care for every American. Current estimates have nearly 47 million adults and children uninsured.

NEA members came out in force. “We want to make sure that health care stays affordable,” said Angel McDermott, a speech therapist from New Jersey. “They have to make health care available to all citizens. It’s a benefit that we deserve.”

The rally was timed to coincide with Congressional activity on the issue. Both the House and Senate are currently stitching together proposals that meet the reform goals outlined by President Obama, which are supported by the NEA. For teachers and education support professionals, health care reform is an urgent economic issue.

“We have some ESP members back in Wisconsin who have their entire salary going to health care,” said Glenn Schmidt, a special education teacher in Wisconsin. “There’s no waiting on this issue.”

Singing and stomping to a remix of the classic Queen tune, “We Will Rock You,” the crowd chanted “We want, we want, health care!” Speakers, including members of Congress, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, and actor Edie Falco of The Sopranos fame, explained how the U.S. health care system is failing its citizens and said the urgency for reform has never been greater. Attendees also headed into the Capitol to lobby their representatives in Congress.

 

In addition to coverage for all, NEA members in attendance stressed the urgent need to include children in any new health care reform bill. Being on the front lines in the classroom gives members a significant vantage point when it comes to the impact that untreated illness—be it temporary or chronic—has on students’ performance.

“Our system needs to include all Americans, especially children. We need lifetime coverage, from birth to death,” said Joseph Russo, a 35-year teaching veteran from Wisconsin.

Maria Carmen Lojo, a teacher from New Jersey, agreed. “Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. There’s no price that the government can put on its children, on its future.”

Participants also urged Congress not to pay for health care reform by limiting or capping the employee tax exclusion for health benefits. NEA believes taxing these benefits would unfairly penalize workers and will discourage highly-qualified individuals from a career in public education.

But NEA strongly supports a public health care option. Under the Obama Administration’s proposal, Americans can keep their private plan or opt for a government-sponsored plan. Without a public plan, affordable, universal coverage for all will be difficult.

“If they don’t have a public option, then I’m not sure the plan will be very useful,” said Schmidt. “They’ll just be putting a Band-Aid on the issue, and that’s not what we need.”

Photos: Emilie Openchowski


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Video: A special education aide from Oak Creek, Wisconsin, struggles after her family loses its health insurance.

For more information on NEA positions and actions, visit Health Care For All.