A Memorial Day Wish

Jeanne A. Curley

I’m thinking of my dad today. He passed a few years back, but he was a veteran. He was in the Battle of the Bulge. Unlike many others, he did come back. He lived into his nineties. Toward the end of his life, he needed long-term care. He had a policy, one he paid into for decades, that was supposed to cover it, but really didn’t. (I have the NYSUT catastrophic medical emergency insurance, and I’m acutely aware that doesn’t cover it either.) 

Toward the end of my dad’s life, his wife was looking into divesting him of his assets and getting him into Medicaid so she wouldn’t lose her home paying care facility bills. Meanwhile, my friend’s grandmother in Canada got end-of-life care from the government with no out-of-pocket expense.

When I was a lot younger, my friend’s father had to sell his house to pay for his wife’s medical expenses. I don’t recall exactly what was wrong with her, but I remember she lost her leg and lingered for a long while. When she finally passed, the father had to move into the basement of one of his grown sons. He didn’t seem to like it there very much. I know that because one Christmas Eve he blew his head off with a pistol. This was the first time I realized something was very wrong with our health care system.

Once, I had a job playing fiddle in a bluegrass band in a small theater in Pennsylvania. We were opening for a name band much bigger than we were. I remember there were four guys in the band, and three of them were really overweight. Only the banjo player was not. They sent us all to lunch in a nearby restaurant, and I sat with him. I remember we both ordered Reuben sandwiches.

That was a Saturday. The following Tuesday, this banjo player had chest pains. Playing banjo is not generally a very lucrative career, and this particular banjo player, of course, had no health insurance. He thought about going to the ER, but also had to think about the thousands of dollars that visit would have cost him. (I know for a fact he didn’t make thousands that Saturday night. The singer probably paid him sideman wages, whatever they may be.) He decided to ride it out, but the ride didn’t go well. He died of a heart attack later that day.

Throughout the years, I’ve seen musical heroes of mine get sick. Often, I’d see people giving benefit concerts for their health care. Sometimes I’d contribute to GoFundMe or similar things for musicians I knew who’d gotten in trouble. These artists I respected, and likely ones you respect too, ought to have been covered somehow. In Canada they all are. In fact, anyone working in a Taco Bell in Canada has full health coverage, as they should. I don’t think anyone deserves to have health care because their jobs are more important, prestigious, or better-paying. I think everyone needs and deserves health care. As for expenses, it would certainly be cheaper in the long run to guarantee it for all and cut out the parasitical private health care companies.

It’s a moral imperative that we give health care to all, one way or another. NYHA could be a first step. I recently read a book called The Sum of Us, by Heather McGhee, that examines our culture. A core question McGhee poses is, “Why can’t we have nice things?” The answer, in short, is that America presents benefits as a zero-sum game. Oh, if we have that, then those bad people (read people of color) will get it, and somehow you’ll lose something. Thus, white people don’t get it either, no one gets it at all, and we’re all somehow losers. Bigots can congratulate themselves for preserving freedom, whatever the hell that is, and Tucker Carlson will urge them to be vigilant in protecting it. 

UFT has a position on single-payer. As I understand it, we oppose the New York Health Act (NYHA) because its expense would somehow cut into education funding, or interfere with benefits we already have. This is odd, because I voted for a resolution that said, albeit in past tense, that we supported the 2015 NYHA. It does go on to state that we support national single payer. I don’t agree with the current position on NYHA. If we have issues, we should negotiate with the sponsors of the bill and fix whatever the issues may be. We are union. Union should be in the business of rising all boats, not saying, “Our boat is fine and yours can sink for all we care.”

I have heard UFT President Michael Mulgrew say on more than one occasion that we prefer a federal health care program, and that we support that idea. Despite that, NYHA could be a first step, something for the rest of the country to aspire to. I’m horrified to find the UFT on this list of organizations that oppose single-payer. It says it’s about NY, but doesn’t really make the distinction of only opposing state-run health care.This particular site maligns Canadian health care, and clearly implies that any government-run health care program would be a failure. Despite that, I see a absolutely no country with universal care moving toward a US model. And Medicare belies that too.

Yes, I like my health care. It’s a whole lot better than nothing, the US standard. That said, I’m not crazy about the copays. I’m not crazy about having doctors tell me they’ve dropped my insurance. My friends and family in Canada don’t have that issue, they don’t have insane wait times, and they don’t envy us at all. I’m sure gazillionaires in Canada and elsewhere can fly here and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the best specialists in the United States. Still, I’m a US resident with relatively excellent health care, and I can’t afford that either.

People reading that site could interpret the UFT to be an organization whose policy is, “We have ours, so screw you.” That’s fundamentally an anti-union position. In fact, it’s an anti-human position. I’d also argue that our brave veterans didn’t give their lives so people could go bankrupt over catastrophic medical emergency, something that happens in no other developed country I know of. We owe it to their memory, and we owe it to our peers and children to leave them something better than this. 

Whatever objections there may be to NYS single payer, we can ask that they be addressed. And even if they aren’t, we should get our name the hell off that list. With our name there, we appear to support the status quo. We look like every disingenuous GOP politician from Trump on down who advocated replacing Obamacare with the nothing we had before.

This is not a good look for the largest teacher local in the country.

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