Alice Bernstein - Journalist & Aesthetic Realism Associate




Artists Sponsor Congressional Hearing
on National Health Insurance

by Karen Van Outryve

Photographs © by David M. Bernstein

All over America something important is taking place—although hardly noticed by the press and media—public Congressional hearings and town hall meetings on the urgent need for healthcare among the uninsured. The numbers of people desperate for health care—and often dying without it—are swelling every year, encompassing both the working poor and middle class alike.

I tell now about a hearing I attended which was organized for artists, who rarely qualify for health insurance because of the sporadic nature of their work.

Photograph © by David M. Bernstein

Congressman John Conyers at Brooklyn Borough Hall, May, 2006

On May 6th, dancers, actors, filmmakers, poets, and doctors representing organizations from the Screen Actors Guild and Musicians Union Local 802 to Hip Hop Caucus and Physicians for Social Responsibility, met in Brooklyn's Borough Hall for the Congressional Hearing for Artists on Health Care presided over by Congressman John Conyers (D-Michigan) and New York City Council Member Charles Barron (District 42, Brooklyn).

This hearing, sponsored by Art Without Walls and Acts of Art, was organized by Mae Jackson and Susan Brennan to support a bill that is gaining increasing public attention: Cong. Conyer's proposed U.S. National Health Insurance Act H.R. 676. This legislation would replace the current profit-driven private insurance and HMO system with a publicly financed, privately delivered single payer health care system that guarantees complete coverag e for every man, woman and child living in the United States.

Congressman John Conyers, Susan Brennan and Medical Students Photograph © by David M. Bernstein

Dozens of artists—young and old—testified about the injustice of our current system, under which more than 45 million uninsured are denied life-saving healthcare. Edisa Weeks spoke simply and with deep feeling, about her partner, the well-known dancer and choreographer, Homer Avila, who kept dancing in spite of horrible pain in his leg. When he finally saw a doctor, it was too late: his right leg and hip had to be amputated due to cancer. Amazingly, Homer kept dancing. He performed an entire evening at the Kennedy Center, and danced until days before his death at age 49.

Asantewaa Harris at Brooklyn Congressional Hearing on
Healthcare, May, 2006
Photograph © by David M. Bernstein

Actress Robin Miles quoted the Declaration of Independence:   We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. “I memorized those words when I was 14,” she said, “and I believe freedom and rights carry responsibilities.” She described the Catch-22 so many endure: first, illness stopped her from working; then, not working made her ineligible for health coverage. “I think the Founding Fathers would have been for H.R. 676.” she concluded.

The growing support for H.R. 676—in Congress, among unions, religious leaders, grass roots organizations, and physicians—was evident as patients, medical students, and physicians testified with passion and courage about the need for universal health care. The panel of experts who commented on the testimony included Woody King of the Federal Theatre; Mitchell Ryan of the Screen Actors Guild Foundation; medical anthropologist and former actress Dr. Joy Ann Juvelis; Dr. Don Sloan of Healthcare-NOW!; Minister Kevin Muhammad of Mosque #7 in Manhattan; Tom Sleigh, poet and professor; Clinton Powers of Fractured Atlas; Norma Munn of New York City Arts Coalition. Each panelist spoke about why the proposed National Health Insurance Act—which would expand and improve upon the existing Medicare program—is practical for America.

(bottom l to r) David Lennon, Tom Sleigh, Dr. Jaime Torres, Norma Munn, Minister Kevin Muhammad (seated top right- Woody King)
Photograph © by David M. Bernstein

Dr. Jaime Torres, founder and national coordinator of Latinos for National Health Insurance, spoke of the 33% increase in profits that HMOs received in 2004—and the resulting toll on people of all races and incomes. “Profit-driven health care,” he said, “is unethical. It is based on contempt for people.” He spoke of learning from Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by Eli Siegel about contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else”—and how hurtful it is.   

He also told of attending the funeral of a 14 year-old girl in the Bronx who died when her HMO refused to do an inexpensive blood test that would have shown she was suffering not from the flu—as she was told—but a perforated pancreas.—All because her mother had taken her to the emergency room without first calling the HMO!

As the mother of a 12-year-old daughter, I was deeply affected to hear this. I thought of the tragedy of a life cut short and the anguish of the mother. I admired the courage of Dr. Torres when he spoke about how healthcare based on profit encourages contempt in everyone who takes part in it, including doctors.

“I remember the turmoil I felt the first time I had to charge a woman with no health insurance,” Dr. Torres said. “After treating her for a foot infection, she asked ‘How much?' Inside I went from feeling, ‘She shouldn't have to pay a penny!' to justifying myself by thinking, ‘I studied hard, and have many loans; besides, someone else may charge her more.' Thank God I learned to ask the question Siegel said is central to ethics: ‘What does a person deserve by being a person?' When we see a person as REAL, wanting to be useful will be the driving force in our hearts, not profiting from their illness.”

Doctors, administrators and healthcare professionals everywhere need to learn from this! “You have restored my belief in doctors,” a man told Dr. Torres in the discussion that followed.

I had great respect for every person who spoke at this Congressional hearing and immediately called and wrote to my elected representatives urging them to support H.R. 676. And after this meeting I noticed that not a day went by that I did not hear of or read another story reflecting the shameful state of health care in our nation. For example, Save the Children reported on May 8 th that of 33 industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks near the bottom when it comes to the survival rate of its babies, with 5 deaths for each 1,000 babies born.   For people of color, the number rises to 9 in 1,000 births.

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without universal health care. According to Cong. Conyers, H.R. 676 “would save at least $150 billion annually by eliminating high overhead and profits of the private, investor-owned insurance industry and reducing spending for marketing and other satellite services.” With 68 co-sponsors in Congress, support is growing for H.R. 676, and this article is written with the hope that people throughout the United States will insist that their elected representatives support it now.

Karen Van Outryve is a poet and consultant on the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation. She writes of issues of importance to women and families—including education, hunger and homelessness—and lives in Manhattan with her husband and daughter.

[Note: This article has appeared in newspapers in Brooklyn, NY and elsewhere.
Photo credits: © 2006 by David M. Bernstein. For permission to reprint, contact]


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