August 05, 2012 8:15 am • By Bennett Hall, Corvallis Gazette-Times
Single-payer health care advocates hold house parties to recruit supporters for their cause
On a recent Wednesday night in Corvallis, a dozen people sit around Nadine Grzeskowiak’s living room sipping organic lemonade and munching gluten-free pie while video images flickered on a screen.
But they’re not watching the London Olympics. They’re viewing a Power Point presentation on America’s health care crisis.
After a series of statistics detailing soaring insurance premiums, worsening health problems and widespread medical bankruptcies, up pops a slide on the benefits of single-payer health care.
It’s not a government takeover of private medical care, Grzeskowiak tells the intimate gathering of friends and neighbors. It’s simply a rational response to a national emergency.
“People in this country don’t want anybody to take their freedoms away,” she says. “The thing is, we actually lost our freedom in this country a long time ago when it comes to health care.”
House parties like this one are being organized all over Oregon by reform advocates like Grzeskowiak, a registered nurse whose struggles with undiagnosed celiac disease soured her on a system she believes puts profits before patients.
“Why should I look for celiac disease,” she said one doctor asked her, “when there’s no treatment I can bill for?”
Grzeskowiak is the vice chair of Mid-Valley Health Care Advocates, one of several regional organizations working under the umbrella of Health Care for All Oregon in a statewide push to declare health care a human right.
The grassroots campaign is modeled after a successful effort in Vermont and is seen as a stepping stone on the road to establishing universal, taxpayer-funded health insurance for all Oregonians — a single-payer system.
Mid-Valley Health Care Advocates has held more than a dozen house parties to date, said Bud Laurent, the organization’s chair. Each one usually attracts 12 to 15 people, and they seem to create a self-sustaining momentum.
“We’re averaging about three a month,” Laurent said. “Often what happens is that a house party will spawn a house party.”
It’s a bottom-up strategy calculated to win a few supporters at a time. Attendees are encouraged to get involved in various ways, from distributing promotional materials and writing letters to the editor to recording video testimonials and posing for a photo holding a “Health Care Is a Human Right” placard.
The idea is to gradually build a groundswell of support for single-payer health care in this state, then push for legislative action.
Previous efforts to promote the idea in the Legislature have fallen short, and voters roundly rejected a Health Care for All Oregon ballot measure in 2002. Oregon reformers want to make sure they have public opinion firmly on their side before going back to the political well again.
“In my mind, we need to work at least a year, maybe two,” Laurent said, before introducing another single-payer bill or launching another initiative petition.
Not everyone at Grzeskowiak’s party was ready to jump on the single-payer bandwagon, with some of the guests asking pointed questions about the advisability of scrapping private insurance and replacing it with a government-run system financed by tax money.
That was a cue for some of the other reform advocates at the gathering to jump into the fray.
Private insurance is wasteful, argued Paul Hochfeld, an emergency room physician who co-founded a single-payer advocacy group called the Mad As Hell Doctors.
The mishmash of health plans we have now takes money away from patient care and diverts it to overhead, while the payment system creates perverse incentives to do costly and unnecessary procedures, Hochfeld said.
Meanwhile, those who can’t afford insurance put off treatment until they get desperately ill and show up in the ER, driving up the amount of uncompensated care hospitals must provide and pushing up costs for everyone else.
“What we have to do is get people to understand that we are all paying for everybody anyway,” he said.
“We just have to find a way to get value for our money.”
Eventually the conversation becomes more general, with many of the guests sharing personal horror stories of rejected insurance claims, crushing medical bills and illness left untreated for lack of coverage.
There’s also a lively exchange of ideas on different ways to improve the system.
Hochfeld said he doesn’t expect to change anyone’s mind about health reform at a house party. Most people, he believes, stake out their positions based on political ideology or personal values. But some are receptive, and those are the ones he’s hoping to reach.
“It’s not about converting people,” he said. “It’s about talking to the people who haven’t made up their minds yet one way or the other.”
Cheryl Lohman came to Grzeskowiak’s house willing to be persuaded. A small business owner with no health insurance, she recently helped her mother through a health crisis and worries about what would happen if she got sick herself.
“I’m kind of scared,” she told the group. “And I wonder what the United States would look like if we didn’t have to worry about health care.”
By the end of the meeting, Lohman is aflame with enthusiasm for single-payer health care. She grabs a stack of promotional literature, picks up some “Health Care Is a Human Right” buttons featuring a Rosie the Riveter look-alike in a nurse’s uniform, and gets her picture taken for the photo petition.
Before she leaves, Lohman tells Grzeskowiak she’s determined to do something to help promote the cause.
“It’s bubbling up inside,” she says. “I know I want to make a difference.”
Contact reporter Bennett Hall at email@example.com or 541-758-9529.