By CHRIS COLLINS
Mary Gerisch is a promoter of Vermont’s unique universal health-care program. Larry Steward, a retired professor from Portland, at left, traveled with her to Baker City last week.
When Mary Gerisch starts talking about Vermont’s universal health-care program, it’s hard to stop her.
The words tumble out of Gerisch’s mouth without hesitation as she explains how the residents of her state, through a grassroots effort, persuaded their lawmakers to pass the first-of-its-kind legislation to guarantee health care to every resident of Vermont.
Gerisch spoke in Baker City on Tuesday night to recruit supporters to promote a similar program in Oregon. She was accompanied by two medical doctors, a retired professor and two registered nurses who hope to emulate the success achieved in Vermont.
They stopped by the Baker City Herald for an interview Wednesday.
Vermont’s universal health-care law, which emphasizes health care as a human right, is built on five basic principles that bring people together rather than dividing them, Gerisch said. They are:
• Universality — It’s for everyone; if you are human you qualify for the plan, she said.
• Equity — All people get what they need when they need it and pay according to their ability.
• Accountability — Government is held accountable for meeting the needs of its people.
• Transparency — Clear information that people can understand and follow.
• Participation — “Since we are people we get to participate,” Gerisch said.
The program establishes a universal and uniform health-care system from birth to death for every resident and is not tied to employment, she said, noting that the word “resident” is used, not “citizen,” to avoid any discussion of immigration issues.
Rather than pitting people against each other based on religion, ethnicity or economic status, the grassroots effort “embraced a human rights framework” to bring people together to accomplish a common goal. And that’s what she’s encouraging Oregonians to do.
Michael Huntington, a retired radiation oncologist from Corvallis and the leader of the Mad as Hell Doctors, joined Gerisch on a tour of 11 Oregon communities last week. A rally at Corvallis on Dec. 12 drew 120 people and recruited another 48 volunteers for the effort, Huntington said. The group’s next stop Wednesday was La Grande.
Huntington and Michael Glaze, a registered nurse from Salem, were making a return visit to Baker City. The two were part of a seven-person contingent that spoke about single-payer health care for Oregon during a visit to the community in April.
The group that traveled to Baker City this week also included David Young, a registered nurse from Portland; Jerry Robbins, a Newport doctor; and Larry Steward, a retired professor from Portland.
Young said the movement has gained support from registered nurses throughout the state and the country along with doctors and other health-care professionals, teachers and members of faith communities.
“From my faith group (the Episcopal Church in Portland) the No. 1 concern is not salvation,” he said. “It’s if I lose my job, I’ll lose access to health care.”
Vermont is in the process of deciding how to pay for its new health-care program. Information gathered at listening posts in the state shows that most people favor raising the money through “broad-based income and wealth taxation,” Gerisch said.
And while people will pay more taxes to support the system, they no longer will pay insurance premiums, deductibles, or be required to make co-payments.
“It will cost less,” she said.
And the savings will be seen in many ways, not only in dollars and cents, but in the ability to provide substance abuse and mental health treatment to everyone, including 50 percent of Vermont’s prison population that are incarcerated because of those issues. And it will eliminate 60 percent of bankruptcies filed because a family has been faced with a catastrophic health condition.
People also will no longer put off preventive care and then be required to visit emergency rooms for serious health problems, she said.
Gerisch said she and two other representatives of the Vermont Workers’ Center, which led the Health Care is a Human Right campaign, traveled to Oregon to recruit allies for the cause.
“I want the people of Oregon to be the next state to get universal health care,” she said.
Huntington, who also is affiliated with Physicians for a National Health Program, said he and the other members of the group are providing educational resources to community organizers as they travel. They keep in touch by email and teleconferences and are developing speakers bureaus.
Marilyn Dudek is leading the effort to organize a chapter of Health Care for All in Baker County. Dudek, 65, is semi-retired from her job as a legal secretary for the firm of Coughlin & Leuenberger, and qualified for Medicare this year. She also serves as vice chair.
She became involved after registering on the Physicians for a National Health Care Program online. When Huntington and the Mad as Hell Doctors wanted to visit Baker City last spring, they called her number to schedule a stop in the community.
Dudek urges anyone interested in joining the cause to do the same by calling her at 541-523-4421.
And although she says she’s been blessed with good health, she’s concerned for others who are not so fortunate. Dudek believes in the Vermont policy of health care as a human right.
“It shouldn’t be limited to just those who can pay for it,” she said.
Once the group gets organized, it will schedule speaking engagements in the community to spread the word.
Ramon and Carolyn Lara also are helping spur the effort in Baker County.
Ramon Lara, 73, is a retired forestry technician whose career took him from sawmills to the U.S. Forest Service, which he retired from in 1993, and then to the Nature Conservancy, where he worked until 2000. He and his wife have been involved in grassroots activism for many year.
The Laras are members of Oregon Rural Action, a nonprofit organization whose goals are, according to its website, “to promote social justice, agricultural and economic sustainability, and stewardship of the region’s land, air and water.” The couple also were part of the initial effort to establish the Baker Food Co-op and they are active members of the Baker Farmers Market and are interested in promoting renewable energy.
Ramon Lara said he also believes in health care as a human right.
“We need to take care of humanity,” he said. “That’s my concern.
“Globally it is recognized as a human right,” he said. “It isn’t in the United States.”
The first step in getting others on board to urge state lawmakers to pass a universal health care program in Oregon will be to educate the community and to answer questions about the process, Lara said.
And to refute misconceptions about how a single-payer health-care program would work and what it will and will not do.
It would not establish a system of socialized medicine, he says.
“Talking socialism is just a scare tactic,” he said. “This is democracy in its finest form — when people tell the Legislature this is what we want and you do it or we’ll get somebody who will.”
For details about the Vermont Health care Initiative, go to madashelldoctors.com