Health Care ‘Street Heat’
On the Rise at Altmire’s
By Carl Davidson
Beaver County Blue
Nov. 12, 2009 – The ongoing battle over health care reform hit the streets of Aliquippa, Pa on this mild and sunny fall afternoon, as nearly 50 Beaver County residents chanted slogans and heard searing speeches over their lunch hour at the local offices of 4th CD Congressman, Jason Altmire. At the close of the rally, they marched into the building and packed the office vestibule, leaving written statements and petitions.
The message was loud and clear. The health care crisis, expanding costs and shrinking coverage, was taking a heavy toll on the working class and retirees of this entire economically distressed Ohio River Valley region. The gathering here was angry with Altmire’s ‘No’ vote on the current health care reform package in the Congress, and demanded that he change course.
“I hope the insurance industry you’re trying to protect gives you your old job back,” Charlene Gill, a retiree from nearby New Castle, Pa, shouted into a bullhorn. “Your ‘no’ vote is the reason I will vote for whoever runs against you.” Altmire worked as a government relations executive for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a bastion of the medical industry in the area, prior to his election to Congress.
The protesters were pulled together by the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, working with MoveOn.org, SEIU and other local unions. Political support came from Democrats for America, the 4th CD Progressive Democrats of America and other Democratic activists and community groups. They are part of a national effort to put pressure on foot-dragging politicians, focusing on improving the package in the Senate, and getting it passed overall.
Altmire claimed his vote was because the package was too expensive, and that he was a ‘deficit hawk.’ At the same time, however, he pushed for measures making the package more expensive, while opposing the less expensive HR 676 ‘Medicare for All’ single payer alternative. In the months leading up to the vote, he joined the conservative ‘Blue Dog’ caucus, which often votes with the GOP against the majority of Democrats. This put him at loggerheads with the area’s labor unions, initially strong backers but now highly critical. This was reflected in the class-conscious militancy of nearly everyone behind the bullhorn:
“Your campaign reports say you’ve taken $5,500 from Blue Cross Blue Shield,” said Jack Connors of Ohio Township. “These are the same people who should go to jail for raising medical care prices this next year as much as 23 percent when the seniors are not going to get even a cost of living increase.”
Several other speakers stressed the difficulties of the uninsured and under-insured. “Mr. Altmire, you’re my congressman,” said Tracy Lawless of Health Care for Health Care Workers. “I hope one day when you’re old and when you need someone to toilet you, to feed you, to take care of you, that you will think about your vote last Saturday.” Another woman told of how she was dropped by her insurance company after a severe illness, and the only way she could keep getting the medicine to stay alive was to go on welfare and get Medicaid. “If I make more than $800 a month, I get dropped from Medicaid, and no one will hire me because I’m uninsurable.”
Altmire has also taken some heat from the GOP and rightwing tea baggers. They are opposing any reform, playing on the fears of people who have insurance, however shaky it may be, that all-inclusive reform will mean their piece of the insurance pie will shrink. Some of these fall prey to the Ron Paul libertarians, who claim the way to get economic relief and counter the recession is to cut taxes and social benefits to near zero.
“We’re in a bind for the time being,” said one trade unionist. “We can put some heat on Jason, even run against him in the primary. But we don’t want to take him down unless we have someone better who can win. We don’t want Melissa Hart or any of the Republicans back. But now’s the time to start looking.” Hart held the office earlier, before she was defeated by Altmire.”
Sister Mary Morgan of the Sisters of St. Joseph was the wrap-up speaker before the crowd crammed into the offices. She took Altmire to task for a failure of courage, asserting she knew it was not easy to stand up to wealthy conservatives in the suburbs, and was upset over his vote. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she said, “I love the man. I love Jason Altmire. I was just deeply disappointed.”
This gathering was far from satisfied with the current legislation, even as they were backing it. Every time ‘single payer’ or ‘Medicare for All’ was mentioned, it got applause. The city councils of Aliquippa and Ambridge, as well as the nearby village of South Heights, had all come out for HR 676, and delivered resolutions to the Congressman. The mood was one of settling in for a long and complex fight, and none of these people would be sitting on the sidelines.