Thursday, April 16, 2009

Grassroots effort for health care reform gathers on turf of Garfield Park

GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN (APRIL 16, 2009)--The Thursday evening rally at Garfield Park, on the city's southeast side, might have been mistaken for a family reunion or, better yet, an activists' fashion show. People from across the region came dressed in loud t-shirts bearing insignia from their respective organizations.

But with many t-shirt slogans came one unified message: health care for all can't wait.

The town hall meeting, sponsored by Grand Rapids ACORN and Health Care for America NOW (HCAN), gathered a large host of people to discuss concerns about the nation's health care system.

"Being part of a democracy doesn't happen every four years," explained Chris van Leeuwen, the event's organizer. "It happens every day."

Van Leeuwen represents ACORN, a nationwide organization whose goal is to mobilize a critical mass around various social issues. One such issue is that of health care.

Val Przywara works for the Michigan chapter of HCAN and is a member of the Health Care Action Group for the Micah Center, a local faith-based grassroots effort to educate and empower the community to act against injustice. "(Health care) can't wait because we're spending more and more and getting less and less in return," she said. "Our current system doesn't work."
There were many in attendance Thursday evening who offered first-hand testimonies of the failures of the nation's health care system. 

Charleen Smith, of Righteous Justice, stood up during the forum to explain her Christian ministry's efforts to connect low-income individuals with proper care-providing outlets. 

"Some of these people don't seek insurance because of all the confusing forms," she said, indicating that low literacy can be a barrier to adequate health care. She also commented on the plight of the working poor who don't qualify for Medicaid but are too poor to pay out of pocket for services.

Two young college graduates related their experiences as low-wage earners unable to afford insurance.

Another attendee raised questions about health care access for undocumented immigrants. "Is it really health care for all?" she asked.

Maria Salinas, who later consoled the young woman asking about coverage for immigrants, commented on the struggles of undocumented individuals and families with relation to health care. 

"Health care and immigration go hand in hand," said Salinas, a representative of faith-based Gamaliel. She indicated that many immigrant families forego obtaining basic services due to fear. "They're afraid they won't be able to pay, or they won't understand, or they won't have an I.D. to present."

Dr. John Cavacece, primary care physician at the Wege Institute of St. Mary's hospital and member of the Micah Center, offered his perspective as a health care provider. "I've seen patients die because they didn't have health insurance," he explained. "We want insurance for everyone."
The resounding chorus in favor of a universal health care system did not fall upon deaf ears. Among those in attendance were State Representative Rev. Robert Dean and Kent County Comissioner Brandon Dillon.

The road to reform, however, is never smooth. "We're going to need to keep active on this campaign," said John Freeman, state director of UCAN's Michigan office. "This is not a one-hit issue."

Cavacece echoed Freeman's comments. "This has got to be something from the grassroots," he said.

So it seemed only fitting that a grassroots effort such as this would take place on the green lawn of Garfield Park.

One of those comprising the grassroots effort was Willie Bolden. Wearing a purple Service Employees International Union shirt and clasping a "Health Care Can't Wait" sign, he quietly took in the event. "I'm here for the support," Bolden explained. "We've got a bad health care system; I'd like to see a lot of change."

Bolden, a veteran of the armed services, explained his own struggles obtaining health care. "I can go to the VA clinic, but even that's limited."

But he wasn't present just for himself. His mother, also in attendance, is among the millions of Americans without adequate health insurance. Bolden recognized the potential for change, however, observing, "There is strength in numbers."

Those numbers promise to grow: van Leeuwen indicated that the universal health care initiative is a top priority for ACORN. "It's about phone calls. It's about calling families, calling indidividuals, calling senators and representatives," he said.

As chairs were packed into the trunk of a car and a lone podium stood in the 
dusk of Garfield Park, van Leeuwen and others expressed satisfaction. Tomorrow, it will be back to the relentless work of striving for change.

For the health of everyone, let's hope they succeed.

Brian Paff, The Micah Center

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