By Ellen O’Shea
I stood in the doorway trying to make eye contact with each person who passed me by. I reached out to the man in front of me and placed a square of paper in his hand. He looked at the paper and then at me. "I see you everywhere", he said. "And, you do this with such passion".
"Yes, because I have a long memory of what was before, and what is waiting for us", I say. "I don't understand", he says.
I tell him that my passion lies not in a political campaign to pass an initiative but in the welfare of the people of Oregon. He tells me he wants to know more.
I think that I should not say what I know because it might get me into trouble. Politicians and people in authority don't like working class people with a long social memory. We drive them crazy. Our stories spoil their media campaigns and cause people to stop feeling so isolated, and they start trusting the strong feeling in their gut that something is not right.
"No", I say. "There is not enough time to tell you what I know here in the middle of a crowd, everyone moving by so fast. Maybe someday you will see me again passing out this information and there will be time for me to speak."
Passion is something that can only be communicated in the old-fashioned way of the working class: story telling, songs, and word of mouth.
So much of what supports the working people in Oregon has been destroyed. We are told we cannot speak unless we have millions of dollars to buy the airwaves and then we get 15 seconds or 30 seconds.
I look at the internet and realize that most of the story telling is done in sound bites and people are not encouraged to tell the historical personal story. What is said is all so intellectual and removed from our lives. The sense of isolation is still very strong.
I have a strong story telling passion. It is both cultural and hereditary. It comes from hanging out with Irish-American working people in the 50's and 60's. After that I don't remember people talking to each other much, because every one went to sit in front of the TV instead of talking to each other.
My passion to tell a story has been growing day by day as I go out into the crowds of people and hear their personal stories. It is all I can do to keep it bottled up.
I have been stumping for Measure 23 - Healthcare for all Oregon. For me this measure is not so much about access to healthcare as it is access to a democratic and safe healthcare. Oregon has gone through many cycles of people coming here and trying to sell us healthcare that had nothing to do with our welfare. The working class and the working poor have always been the most vulnerable to healthcare scams. The present group of scammers: insurance companies, HMO's and pharmaceutical companies are the latest in a long line of carpetbaggers to invade Oregon. America has become the only industrialized nation to let people die because they cannot afford access to healthcare.
I have a long time relationship with the health of Oregonians. I am not a doctor or a nurse. My work in healthcare was always with those who could not access health care. I volunteered in free clinics, in rebuilding water supplies for the working poor in the Coast Range, in educating people about AIDS, TB and environmental health and safety. The passion to do this came from my mother a public health nurse who was a visiting nurse in the 1930's through 60's. And my father who was a civil engineer who helped people have safe drinking water and a safe place to live.
But, it all began a long-time before my parents. OK, so I need to tell story in the right way. Start at the beginning. Introduce the characters. Tell you about the dilemma and try to come up with an end or at least leave you to ask your own questions.
I am a fifth-generation Oregonian. My relatives came from Ireland. One of my grandfathers was born in Ireland. He left behind a country where most people were enslaved, poor and starving. My great- grandparents found the secluded deserts of Eastern Oregon in the 1850's. They began a family heritage of tithing back to the poor of Ireland and America. They brought their own healers with them from Ireland. These healers were mostly midwives who took care of people from birth to death. No doctors. No nurses. They did not live long. Many had children who died during their first 5 years and many adults died in their 50's. They worked hard and were prone to buying concoctions from traveling salesmen. More often than not, many bought their "medicines" from Veterinarians. These vets had a salve for the sore muscles of horses that contained large does of morphine. Painkillers were a blessing from God to the hardworking worn out people. When people could find a doctor, most charged very little money. One could barter with a chicken or work on the doctor's farm. For the most part people were used to caring for their own.
In the valleys, cities, towns and deserts of Oregon the rich had access to doctors. They often traveled to San Francisco to access healthcare and had another house in the city to accommodate their doctor visits. Most people set their own peoples bones when they were broken, took care of the sick in their own homes (many homes had a "sick room") and buried their own dead. There was no extra money.
My grandmother learned about the healing plants from local Native American women. She made teas and potions to help stave off the "croup", whooping cough", and flu. In 1917 and 1918 a pandemic of influenza spread across the world killing millions of people. My mother was born in 1917 and survived because my grandmother was taken to a remote part of the Steens Mountains and lived in isolation for more than a year until the pandemic passed. There were no antibiotics and people had not yet come to trust scientists as the health saviors.
During the 30's, 40's and 50's the people of Oregon became increasingly impoverished. They were forced off their land and into the cities to find work. Or, they moved to Western Oregon to work in the woods. The work was incredibly dangerous. Many men lost their lives to tree felling and factory work. There was little available healthcare. When a man was injured in the woods, he was taken home and given painkillers. Sometimes a doctor was called. There were few hospitals. Sometimes he mended and sometimes he did not. Low- income people with Tuberculosis were gathered up and put in the State Hospital and prisons along with people who were considered to be insane. The state hospital was filled with anyone who was considered to be abnormal. Downs syndrome people, poor late-staged alcoholics, poor late-staged venereal disease victims, in fact just about anyone who was very low-income and sick. There was no viable treatment for mental illness taking place in these institutions.
The unions (Wobblies) became strong and demanded that access to healthcare be part every working man's (not women so much) working benefits. At the same time Roosevelt's "New Deal" program helped to build highways, hospitals, schools and public health outreach programs across the nation. This program was a boon to Oregon. So impoverished were most people that we had no tax-base to build a social infrastructure. Many people were given jobs during this time under the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). These armies of workers built water systems, sanitation systems, and other health related infrastructure. Still many people in Oregon did not have indoor plumbing in their homes. Starting in the 1950's working people in Oregon began to have full-access to healthcare. This was the time of mass-vaccinations for polio and other contagious diseases such as smallpox. The number of babies and children dying dropped dramatically. Widespread dental care became available to working people. (Before that time, it was not uncommon for working poor and working class to die from complications of dental caries when they reached their 40's or 50's.)
My mother was a visiting nurse who worked in Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties. She traveled in the hills and valleys to try to help communities develop programs to stop diabetes and infectious disease. She treated children in schools for head lice, impetigo, staph and other communicable diseases that threatened to shut down the schools. She worked in the early childhood vaccination program. I traveled with her sometimes. I saw many houses run down, no indoor plumbing, children with rotten teeth, Adults with crooked limbs that had not healed right after a logging accident. Poor nutrition, dirty drinking water, and no place to bath impacted the fragile health of the working poor. That was the 1960's. Even with all the programs, outreach and services available there were many working poor in Oregon. And, they hardly ever had access to healthcare or sanitation services.
The working class of Oregon slowly pulled themselves out of that never-ending rut of poverty and a more democratic form of healthcare became the norm. In the late 1960's and 70's just about everyone had access to doctors, dentists, and hospitals in Oregon. The efforts of the unions and social reformists such as Senator Wayne Morse had paid off. Prices for healthcare were equitable and held in check. Many doctors and nurses were being trained because they received a full financial ride through medical and nursing school. New hospitals and clinics were built. Every county in Oregon had a public health clinic whose services were mostly free.
In the 1970's, the free clinic movement thrived in Western Oregon college towns and rural areas. White Bird Clinic (Eugene), Sunflower House (Corvallis), The Wolf Creek Clinic (Wolf Creek) were just a few of the clinics that served anyone who needed help. These clinics were built not only to respond to the revolution in women's health but provide much needed mental health, drug abuse and sexual health services and education. These issues of health care had the worst social history of any aspect of healthcare in Oregon.
This was also the time when the health insurance scams began. People across the nation began to pay more and more of their income to be able to access healthcare. Very expensive surgeries, treatments and drugs were sold to the people as the only means to extend life and stay healthy. Millions of dollars was spent on propaganda through mass media. Much preventative education was dropped from healthcare. Use of tobacco and fatty, highly preserved foods became endemic to all socio-economic levels of society. People in the US became sicker and more dependent on invasive treatments that held them economically captive to doctors, insurance companies and drug companies.
The health foods and supplements movement started as a reaction to the movement toward medical treatment rather than health care and the increasing move to create "plastic" unsafe foods. It was also a response to the unsustainable practices of using dangerous chemicals to produce foods. An understanding of ecological devastation and over population began to gain a foothold. Food co-ops, organic farming, naturopathic and whole systems healing emerged from a grass- roots movement. "Diet For A Small Planet" became the movement bible. Corvallis had one of the longest-lived food co-ops (First Alternative Food co-op) in the nation until recently. This movement emphasized personal responsibility and life style changes to guard ones health, rather than turning over ones body to "specialists" in medical treatment. In the 80's and 90's "Natural Foods" and Whole body healing became inaccessible by the working poor. Insurance companies did not usually include Naturopathic or Alternative care. A visit to ANY doctor could cost one to three hundred dollars.
Also in the late 70's and 80's there was a growing movement to provide low or no cost healthcare to ethnic minorities. One group of people who have been most successful has been the Oregon Hispanic community. They are a wonderful group of people who cooperate to take care of one another. There are now at least nine clinics that are socio-medical and provide a whole range of services to help Hispanic people stay healthy. Here are just few of these clinics now in Oregon: Salud clinic, Woodburn, Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, Cornelius, Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, McMinnville, Virginia Garcia Healthy Start, Hillsboro, West Salem Clinic, Salud Clinic, Woodburn, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Clinic, Salem.
Clinics offering services to African Americans have not been so lucky. Many of the original neighborhood free and low-cost clinics have been shut down in Portland. Measure 23 would provide funds to re-open neighborhood clinics and help to maintain the Hispanic Health clinics.
In the 80's and 90's the working class of Oregon began to acquire better and better paying jobs. Many, many people had good and extensive health care insurance and access. In 1985, Congress mandated that workers laid off could extend their coverage through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) that added requirements for health care continuation coverage. Many other multi- leveled insurance schemes were put in place. More and more of healthcare dollars went to business managers and not to health practitioners.
Then starting in the year 2000 mass layoffs hit Oregon because of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and other so-called "free trade" schemes. It is estimated that over 25,000 jobs have been lost in Oregon alone since 2000. Many of those laid off have not been able to find work with good benefits. Many dropped their insurance altogether because it was not affordable. A laid-off worker COBRA payment was most often $350 to $700 a month. In the year 2000 423,000 Oregonians were not insured. 70,000 of these were children (Source: Year 2000 Oregon Population Survey). It is estimated that the number has grown to 600,000 Oregonians as of 2002. Without insurance, people cannot access healthcare because it is too expensive to see a doctor. According to the American Chamber of Commerce Researchers Association Cost of Living Index the average cost for a visit to a general practitioner (brief visit in a moderate size American city)is now $100. A visit to the emergency room for non-invasive treatment is averaged at $2,000. Preventative education is all but missing in healthcare today; there is no time to educate in the 15 minutes allotted to doctors and nurses by the HMO's and insurance companies. Many people have been wiped out financially because of healthcare costs. Caps on insurance and other regressive schemes have allowed hospitals, doctors and HMO'S to suck all the resources from a family who is experiencing end of life care and catastrophic healthcare treatments. The average insurance premium went up 12% in 2001.
I started stumping for Measure 23 after I learned that it would re- organize and revolutionize health care in Oregon. The working class of Oregon would be back in control of their health. We would use a cooperative method to organize our healthcare dollars that has not been seen since the time of the "New Deal" of the 30's and 40's. Prevention and care of the relationship between the consumer and the practitioner would be emphasized. Everyone would have access to healthcare. We would take existing money we already pay and use it to create an affordable, equitable, and sustaining system of healthcare. Although there would be a tax on employers and workers, this would not be new dollars, it would be the same money transferred out of the pockets of corporate insurance, drug companies, and HMO's and into the Oregon economy. The services we would receive for our dollars would include medical, dental, mental health, eye care, hearing care, preventative, long-term care and other services we need to keep our people well.
"Hi, I see you people everywhere in those orange shirts. What are you talking to people about?" the man asks. "And, you are so passionate about what you have to say!" I hand him a flyer. I tell him about Measure 23. And, I tell him about my commitment to help pass Measure 23.
"Yes", I said. "I work with seniors, and I do this with passion because they are dying for lack of healthcare."
"Your passion shows strong", he said.
The next day I am walking in a throng of people. There are 43,000 people walking across the Burnside Bridge. My bright orange shirt stands out. I am a speck of orange in a sea of pink and white shirts. The people around me have pictures and names of the dead on their shirts and the words "Race for the Cure." Some women have shirts that read "I'm a survivor". On my shirt I have an outline of the state of Oregon and the words "Healthcare for ALL Oregon".
The men and women are walking to bring a cure to breast cancer. Millions of women have died of breast cancer in America in the last 20 years. These people want a cure.
Each year, 180,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 44,000 will die of the disease. The US has one of the highest breast cancer rates in the world. Fifty years ago the incidence of breast cancer for a woman's lifetime risk was one in twenty. Now it has skyrocketed to one in eight. Women are told that early detection is the only way to prevent breast cancer and mammograms are the only way to detect. Research on environmental links to breast cancer is not well funded and not well publicized. But what we do know is that women who eat heavy animal product diets are more prone to breast cancer.
So far the medical establishment has pushed mammograms and women have done as they were told because they did not have insurance that allowed them to try alternative, and environmentally safe care. Women have not had a choice. HMO's and insurance companies pushed what the pharmaceuticals and medical machine makers manufactured.
A woman in a pink shirt asks me about Measure 23.
"So, this measure offers alternative care and if I don't like the care I am getting I can find someone else?" "Yes", I say. "You can vote with your feet. This measure offers choice and healthcare is back in the hands of consumers not business managers."
As we reach the grassy green area on the waterfront of Portland I begin to pass out my flyers. I carry a backpack full whereever I go. I attend two to three events a week. Since June the volunteers of orange-shirted universal healthcare for Oregon movement have contacted face-to-face over 75,000 people in Portland alone.
"Measure 23, we'll be voting on it in November. Measure 23 will bring healthcare to women all over the state." I call out to the people as they pass by me. Some hands reach out to me. I meet them halfway with my flyer.
Then for three hours as I reach out to people and they tell me their stories. I never get tired of these "lack of healthcare" stories. It always starts with a sigh. A release of a breath as though they were holding it in for a long time and finally there is someone to tell. I always feel special that these people would tell me what we are not to talk about in this country. That the healthcare industry is crashing and burning and out of the ashes we need to bring caring back to health.
With each story my passion grows.
I listen to the stories about how they lost a loved one and how they lost everything they owned trying to help the loved one stay alive. And how in the end there was no health insurance and there was only the Oregon Health plan which would not pay for very much at all.
I listen to people tell me that they have no insurance for themselves or their families and never go to the doctor because they cannot afford to. I hear how they hope they never get really sick because they would lose their home and most likely by that time they would be so sick they would also lose their life. I listen about how they hope that their children never get sick because that would be worst thing. It would be horrific to have a sick child and not be able to afford good care even though we are the richest country in the world and have the nifty medical machines, drugs, and treatments.
The two women come to meet me. I saw them clear across the green waving at me. One woman reaches for the flyer. Her hands grasp it and she pulls it to her chest seeming to covet it.
"I am so glad you are here", she exclaims. "I heard that you people were here. I keep hearing about this measure but I cannot find very much about it. It's about time this is happening. It's about time. Thank you so much for doing this and giving us a chance to vote on this. Thank you!"
My passion grows.
The other woman wants to know what kind of care this single-payer healthcare system will pay for.
"It will pay for medical, dental, mental health, eye care, long-term care"…I begin to list all the care. "You can choose your own doctor and the doctor can be any certified or licensed physician in the state."
"Can I see a naturopath?" "Yes, if she or he is licensed and certified in the state of Oregon. "Good", she says, "because I won't go to just any doctor.
The day before several Health Care for All Oregon volunteers went to the Alberta street Fair. The Alberta Street area has a very diverse population. Many African Americans live in this area of Portland. It was a wonderful street fair. The music was diverse, the food was diverse, and the atmosphere was bristling with energy.
It was wonderful walking down the street waving my flyer calling out "Do you know about Measure 23? We'll vote on it in November?" People would look up and ask me what will we vote on? Ha Ha I would think. I got them now. They want to know what we will vote on.
"Universal Healthcare", I say. "No way", they would say.
And I would tell them about Measure 23 and about the vision. And they would smile big and tell me that they had to tell their friends and do I have any more of those flyers. "Oh Yes", I would say. And I would hand them several orange flyers.
One older woman was so excited that she invited me and my volunteer friends to a neighborhood block party.
"You have to come and tell everyone about this because we never heard about this before. None of us have insurance. We all have jobs and our own businesses but we can't afford insurance. Please come and tell us about this Measure 23." I promise to come.
My passion grows.
This campaign to bring universal healthcare to Oregon is not well funded. It is purely grass roots. For the most part each volunteer pays for his or her own flyers. We cannot afford to pay for advertising on radio or TV. We know that in the last few weeks before the election hospital industry, pharmaceuticals and insurance industry lobbyists will bombard the airwaves with ads meant to scare the public and stop us.
We, volunteers go out on the street to look straight into the eyes of the public and say, "We can do this!" We can put out money and will together build something good that will help us all. And, when we need healthcare we will take our little card and go straight to the doctor and it won't matter if we are rich or poor, whether we have a high-paying job or a minimum-wage job. It won't matter if we get laid off from a job. We will have access to healthcare. We people will build a consumer driven health access movement, starting with Oregon. We will move it across the U.S. until every person in America has equitable, affordable, just healthcare.
Oregon is the first of 13 states to vote on single-payer universal healthcare in the next two years. The Healthcare For All organization is in every state. We have been first in many equitable, sustainable, just initiatives. We can do it.
Vote yes on 23 for ALL the people of Oregon.