On March 28, 2022, the Poor People’s Campaign held its first Moral Monday march in Raleigh since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The rallies, which began in North Carolina in 2012 and have radiated across the United States since, have long covered a wide range of issues that disproportionately impact those living in poverty.
Covering issues ranging from fair housing to union-friendly labor policy, prison reform, and more, the Poor People’s Campaign describes itself as a “national call for moral revival,” building on the movement of the same name launched by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967.
The March 28th rally in Raleigh came in preparation for a Poor People’s March on Washington, again echoing Dr. King’s movement, expected to take place on June 18, 2022.
As he did for many Moral Mondays prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Howard Eisenson attended the March 28th rally in Raleigh. He plans to attend the March on Washington on June 18th as well.
Before heading over to Raleigh, Eisenson sat down with NCOHC to talk about his career as a physician, his advocacy work, and a health care policy proposal that an increasing share of Americans support: single-payer health insurance.
While NCOHC has no position on national health care reform policies like single-payer or a public option, our work centers around structural reforms that promise to increase access and equity in oral health care. This blog post is not an endorsement of any national policy reform initiative. Rather, it is meant to explore what single-payer insurance is and why many Americans are working to change the way health care is administered in the United States.
“What many of us feel it’s time for in the wealthiest country on earth is a health care system that serves everybody, that provides for the common good,” said Eisenson.
Eisenson was the Chief Medical Officer for the Lincoln Community Health Center (CHC) from 2012 to 2021. Today, in semi-retirement, he still works for a program called “Just for Us,” a collaboration between the Lincoln CHC and the Duke Division of Community Health.
Working in home health care has been an eye-opening experience for Eisenson. Insurance plans often have very narrow networks, high co-pays, and other barriers that prevent homebound patients from accessing the services they need.
“I’ll give you a quick example from last week,” he said. “I went out to see a patient one morning. ‘How are you doing?’ ‘Terrible,’ she said. I asked her, ‘well, what’s the matter? What’s going on?’ She said, ‘I heard that my insurance won’t pay for my insulin anymore. Pharmacy tells me that.’”
Another call to the pharmacy revealed that her insurance no longer covered her Lantus insulin.
“No doubt what happened is the pharmaceutical manufacturer raised the price,” said Eisenson. “So, we had to find a substitute insulin product. We did, but it took much worry on the part of the patient, phone calls to the pharmacy, a fair amount of my time, re-writing the prescription, a lot of downstream administrative work that would have been avoided had there been one insurance plan that served everybody.”
The Poor People’s Campaign’s list of demands includes the expansion of Medicaid in every state and adoption of a single-payer health insurance system. Eisenson believes that this step is vital if the United States is to achieve equitable access to health care services.
“When you have a publicly funded plan, their main mission at the end of the day is to provide value to the public. That’s what we need. Health care is not your typical consumer product. It’s not like buying a refrigerator where you can shop around for as long as you want,” said Eisenson. “A market-driven approach to health care is inadequate – it leaves too many people out.”
“And we need to cover things like dental care. Who wants to have a mouth full of rotting teeth, or no teeth? And yet dental care is accessible to so few people,” he said. “Dental emergencies occasion so many emergency room visits. Untreated dental problems make so many chronic health problems worse. Not to mention what they do to quality of life. Dental care, vision care, hearing aids, all of these things ought to be included in a comprehensive health package and made available to everyone.”
What Is a Single-Payer Health Care System?
In single-payer health care systems, one entity — usually a government — is charged with administering health insurance for an entire population. Basically, a national insurance system would take the place of our current network of private insurance companies. The actual delivery of health care would remain private, but the financing mechanisms would be controlled by the federal government.
Essentially, a single-payer system would operate like the current Medicare system, only everyone would have access to it.
Supporters argue that a single-payer health care system provides many benefits, including:
- Savings created by increased efficiencies
- Access for everyone, regardless of employment status or financial situation
- Reduced health care spending per capita
However, a transition to a single-payer system wouldn’t be easy or without downsides. For instance, more than 600,000 people in the U.S. currently work in the health and medical insurance industry. Many jobs would be lost in a transition to a single-payer system.
“You can’t just push people out of their jobs without making provisions for them to land on their feet,” said Eisenson.
Lateral transitions and re-training programs are a tall order for those who have made careers in the insurance industry. Yet, creating these opportunities is a need that many prominent advocates for single-payer health care do recognize.
Agreement on Principle: A First Step Toward Single-Payer Health Care
“There are so many details to work out, but the first step is to agree on the common principal,” said Eisenson. “I think most Americans would agree that access to quality health care should be a human right. If someone has a fire in their house, the fire department doesn’t check to see first whether they have paid their fire insurance. If someone is having an emergency and needs the police or an ambulance, nobody is checking to see if they deserve to have help. Everyone gets to send their children to school. These are common goods. Those of us working toward single-payer think that health care should also be a common good.”
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, change must happen to achieve equitable access to health care. At NCOHC, we believe that diverse coalitions of advocates passionate about improving our health care systems are the key to discovering and implementing the best solutions. That means diversity in cultures, backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints, and we welcome all to take a seat at the table in this conversation.
NCOHC, a program of the Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation, works to advance systems-level changes, improving the overall health and well-being of all North Carolinians by increasing access and equity in care. To stay up-to-date and get involved, join us today as a North Carolinian for Change.