Senior activists take on far-reaching social issues
GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN (April 17, 2009)--There's an old adage that suggests that if you're under forty and vote Republican, you have no heart; if you're over forty and you vote Democrat, you have no brain.
Folks gathered this morning suggested that the equation is not so simple for people over sixty.
Debunking a myth that activism belongs only to the young, Advocates for Senior Issues hosted a town hall meeting at Frederick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park that attracted a crowd of close to two hundred people, most of whom were near or past retirement age.
A Thomas Jefferson quote stating that "Information is the currency of democracy" painted the backdrop for a meeting that featured the perspectives of several prominent Grand Rapids voices in the city's community organizing efforts.
Housing and the Homeless
First spoke Linda Likely, Director of Housing and Community Development for Kent County, who debriefed the audience on her department's efforts to aid the community in a harsh economic environment.
"We have such a problem with foreclosure," she explained. Likely described a housing expenditure relief program that promotes financial self-sufficiency and home ownership for working families and individuals. "That's a great thing in this community, where there is so much need."
Likely, who also serves on the National Coallition to End Homelessness, addressed issues pertaining to the homeless population in Kent County as well. She stressed the need to provide housing solutions for growing numbers of people in the region.
Economic Stimulus, Restorative Justice
Next up was David LaGrand, Grand Rapids' 2nd Ward Commisioner. A self-proclaimed spending curmudgeon with a nevertheless progressive outlook on politics, LaGrand added to Likely's housing focus. "If you can keep people in their homes," he told the audience, "that turns out well for the whole neighborhood."
He talked about stimulus funds and his hope for the city to use such funds wisely in order to build up infrastructure and make for a stronger, more sustainable community.
LaGrand also discussed credit companies' role in the economic crisis. "It's like borrowing money from the mob," he said, decrying high interest rates but also emphasizing consumer responsibility. Solid debt counseling, he explained, offers a creative solution to individuals' financial woes, and he indicated that the city is in the process of supporting its constituents' efforts to find debt relief.
Changing gears, LaGrand admitted, "As a politician, this is my moment to prosletyze." He addressed the topic of criminal justice, pointing out the disproportionate amounts of money spent on incarceration in Kent County and across the state and nation. "We see over-funding on the back end and under-funding on the front end."
"We're going to be able to use (funds freed up by) stimulus money to try a restorative justice approach," he said.
The progressive approach emphasizes restoring individuals and the relationships that interconnect them--restoration for the offender, victim, and the community affected by criminal activity. It has earned acclaim in communities across the country and internationally. LaGrand cited statistics where restorative justice practice can reduce recidivism up to twenty percent and can reduce victim fear and trauma by eighty percent. It can also cut costs that would otherwise be allocated to incarcerating individuals.
"I'm not advocating we empty our jails and prisons," LaGrand assured the audience. "But we need to confront the myth that locking people up makes us safer."
"I'm a Christian," he testified, "and I believe that at the heart of the gospel is reconciliation, forgiveness, and love." Upon hearing these words, the audience offered LaGrand resounding applause, expressing their receptiveness to a new approach to criminal justice on behalf of the community.
Finally, the morning's keynote speaker took the podium. Dr. John Cavacece (pronounced cah-VEESH) advanced an articulate and well-informed case for a publicly funded, single-payer health care system for all Americans.
Dr. Cavacece practices general medicine in the Wege Institute at St. Mary's hospital and is a member of Physicians for a National Health Plan (PNHP). He also contributes to health care advocacy efforts of the Micah Center.
Cavacece opened with a vignette about a former patient of his whom he called "Millie." He explained that Millie graduated from high school the same year as he did, a tie that bound the two. To her misfortune, Millie drifted in and out of insurance due to her inability to afford coverage and in spite of her many health problems.
She ended up dying a preventable death.
"I am convinced that Millie was one of the 18,000 people who die each year due to lack of insurance," Cavacece lamented.
He cited three areas of health care in need of reform: cost, quality and access.
Cavacece pointed out that fifty percent of the nation's uninsured population are employed. "(Coverage) simply costs too much," he said. He also described the problem of people neglecting screenings, procedures, and even office visits because of high deductibles and co-payments.
"Health care corporations don't have patients' best interests in mind," he said. "They view health care as a commodity."
And while costs undeniably continue to rise, Cavacece is not convinced that quality of care is rising accordingly. In fact, he disclosed findings from a research study that suggested non-profit health care providers yield better results than do private providers.
To illustrate the access conundrum, Cavacece displayed a political cartoon depicting a man on hands and knees beneath a guillotine. Standing before him was a rather sinister character holding two bags and asking the question, "Paper or plastic?"
In other words, Americans are faced with little choice given high premium costs, out-of-pocket burdens, and lack of alternatives. "Just because you have private insurance doesn't mean you have choice," Cavacece warned. "Basically, you have a choice on how many restrictions you want on your health care plan."
Cavacece remained unabashed in his stance on the issue of health care. He cited growing support across the board for a publicly funded, single-payer health care system. The public, business-owners, physicians and nurses--in increasing numbers, Americans are beginning to rethink the privatized road to health care the nation followed decades ago.
Of course, pharmaceutical companies and large health care corporations wish the public to think otherwise.
But it was not difficult for Cavacece to bring the audience on his side in relation to the giants who run the industry.
"I wish all the ads for drugs on T.V. would just go away," he told the crowd, soliciting the morning's most enthusiastic applause.
Later, he revealed what he termed the "Oh my God" slide of his PowerPoint presentation. The graph contrasted the administrative costs of for-profit insurance companies with the Medicare program to which many in attendance no doubt subscribe. The difference was astounding, especially when represented visually: private endeavors devote anywhere from 16 to 30 percent of spending to administrative costs, while Medicare spends just 2 to 3 percent of its budget on the same item line.
Cavacece concluded his case for a national "Medicare for All" plan by explaining the path to get there. "You can't cross the Grand Canyon in two leaps," he said, motioning with his free hand to demonstrate the chasm that lies in the way of a second leap. "We have to pursue comprehensive reform to fix the health care system.
Afterwards, members of the town hall meeting were able to ask questions of Dr. Cavacece. Never faltering, he appeared to gain more and more support in the room as the clock ticked toward the noon hour, at which point attendees would be able to cash in their five-dollar vouchers for lunch at the Gardens cafe, compliments of Advocates for Senior Issues.
Housing, economy, restorative justice, universal health care--all in a morning's work at the Frederick Meijer Gardens with a room full of seniors. And to think, we thought that Social Security and Medicare were the only two issues on their agenda.
Brian Paff, The Micah Center