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Florida Health Care Reform Advocates Ratcheting Up the Pressure on Elected Democrats

“Shame on us!” admonished Monica Russo to the assembled 1100 participants at the Floridians Rally for Healthcare reform, “Shame on us!” She used the phrase several times to accent what people were not doing hard enough to influence their elected representatives to pass meaningful healthcare reform. It was more like preaching to the choir and yet her stinging rebuke was a warning that healthcare reform could fail without the extraordinary efforts of all the assembled and their activism in promoting the legislation to their friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

The event, sponsored by Health Care Reform for America Now with participation from OFA, SEIU, AFL-CIO, AFSCME,  ACORN and FCAN was held Saturday afternoon, August 29 at 2:00 PM at the Orlando Downtown Recreation Complex to a capacity crowd. This was not an open event; a ticket was needed to enter and participate. Outside, there were a few vendors and petitioners for candidates for office and Florida Redistricting, and even some protesters, however, nothing got confrontational or out of hand. Buses had brought people in from Miami, West Palm Beach, Jacksonville, Tallahassee and other cities throughout the state.

Russo, a member of the SEIU Health Care Team, also acted as emcee and started the afternoon with a fitting tribute to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, specifically citing his continuing efforts to assure that every American had access to a quality education and quality health care. After a moment of silence, State Senator Dan Gelber led the Pledge of Allegiance and told the crowd that at the moment there are 800,000 children in the state of Florida who are uninsured, and that something needed to be done about it. State Representative Scott Randolph Welcomed everyone to the event which is in his district (36).

A short health story was told by Matthew Le Clair, 23 regarding his physical condition. Two years ago at the age of 21 Le Clair had experienced severe back pains but had no insurance and none offered by his employer so he didn’t seek treatment until the pain was too unbearable. After a $3000.00 MRI and minimal treatment he was diagnosed as having three herniated discs. Unable to perform the physical tasks, he was fired by his employer due to illness.

The three person keynote panel included Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson, Mary Kay Henry, Executive Vice President of SEIU and Tony Fransetta, President of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans. Grayson explained that the current bill in the House of Representatives stops insurance companies from lifetime capping of claims and also stops them from excluding people with preexisting conditions. Grayson reminded everyone that 18000 people die each year because they do not seek medical attention due to lack of insurance coverage.

Fransetta, whose organization has over 200,000 members in Florida, railed against the “wimpy Democrats” and went through a check list of myths that needed to be debunked, including Medicare benefits being cut. What he did say is that Medicare will be reformed so that providers will be more accountable to the taxpayers.

Ms. Henry hosted a question and answer session in which the panelists answered questions from participants who wrote them down on white 3×5 cards. The questions seemed too well thought out and studied to have been spontaneous, but they produced some interesting responses. Scott Randolph advised at one point during his answer that there was talk in Republican legislative circles that during the next session they would sponsor a bill exempting Florida from any healthcare reform bill that Congress passes. He urged everyone to write their legislators in opposition to the proposals. There was a question about small businesses being overly burdened by this legislation. Grayson told the questioner that any small business with a payroll under $250,000.00 would be exempt and that her business payroll was small enough that she didn’t have to worry. He also added that during the Bush years insurance company rates tripled and their profits rose 800% placing much more of a burden on the small business owner. The highlight of the Q & A came with Fransetta’s rousing response to a question about Socialized Medicine in which he claimed it already exists “and you will never see any Republican denounce it!” He was speaking about VA healthcare, a system which he as a disabled Korean War veteran was completely familiar with. He warned all not to be fooled or intimidated by any claims of Socialized Medicine.

After the Q & A, Miriam Silvermintz of West Palm Beach explained why she has become an activist. Her son, now 20, is diabetic and at the moment is covered under her insurance, but shortly he will need his own coverage and will not be able to get it due to his preexisting condition. She held a meeting at her house and recruited several friends to become active. I interviewed her afterward and she intimated that her group must have touched some kind of nerve because she was invited to participate in Charlie Crists’  2008 State of the State Address where he mentioned her family by name, although nothing ever came of it.

The stage was now set for Monica Russo:

“Stand up if you’ve made a call, stand up if you’ve knocked on doors, stand up if you’ve written a letter to the editor, stand up if you’ve organized a house meeting.” Each question elicits a response from less than half of the attendees, whereupon she scolds them with “Shame on us!”

Russo outlined her plan of action:

  1. Wear the blue ribbon provided in your health care package until legislation is passed
  2. Get together  September 2 and organize for action
  3. 3. 10000 calls to Senator Bill Nelson’s office in Washington on September 9 202.224.5274, in Orlando toll-free 888.671.4091 (let’s face it- we pay his salary, he can afford the call.)

Russo then went on to say that senators like Bill Nelson and representatives like Suzanne Kosmas need to realize that they can’t just automatically take for granted the votes of Democrats if they don’t do what the people want. The Florida labor unions are beginning to realize this and so is the average Democratic voter in Florida. If they are going to seek reelection they are going to have to earn those votes, and it’s possible that they could lose in the primaries if they don’t take action now. It’s time to throw down the gauntlet.

Press coverage for this event didn’t generate much activity, although there was an article in the Orlando Sentinel describing the event. WFTV Channel 9 did cover the event and conducted some interviews with participants. Jamie Foxx performing at the nearby Bob Carr Performing Arts Center got more press coverage.


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