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Occupy Wall Street Doctors: MDs for Social Justice Join Protest In Liberty Square

"Health care is a human right," say progressive doctors fighting for social change.

A contingent of about 40 doctors in crisp white coats, carrying signs that read “Bronx doctors for Wall Street Occupation” and “My patients need jobs, education, healthcare for all, not just prescriptions, definitely not bank bailouts,” joined the throngs of activists at the Occupy Wall Street protests at New York’s Times Square two weeks ago.

Members of the umbrella group “Healthcare for the 99 Percent,” they are one of a growing number of OWS constituencies that view their particular cause not as a stand-alone issue, but integrated with other social grievances represented by the movement.

These doctors care for the people who live in the poorest congressional district in the country: the South Bronx’s 16th district. They see large numbers of patients each day who are hungry, who don’t have jobs or stable homes, who can’t afford their prescriptions. Widespread poverty means that Motrin and Lipitor won’t do much to help these New Yorkers; their health problems have much deeper socioeconomic roots. Not surprisingly, the Bronx is the unhealthiest county in the state of New York, according to a recent University of Wisconsin study. Dr. Cameron Page, who completed his residency in the Bronx and now works at Manhattan’s Beth Israel Medical Center, says that what he calls "upstream problems" have to be addressed first, because by the time patients get to the exam room, "it’s too late."

These progressive doctors, whose clinic prefers not to be publicly affiliated with them, believe in social medicine, which seeks to address the underlying social and economic conditions that impact health. Page says the intimate personal information he is privy to inspires his activism. A patient may be too ashamed to tell anyone but her doctor that her boyfriend beats her, that she’s living in a shelter, or that she’s hungry. “They tell you things they won’t tell anyone else,” he says. “Once you’ve been given that access...that comes with a certain responsibility.”

The combination of their social justice outlook and the poverty and privation of the Bronx compelled the doctors to link up with the Occupy Wall Street movement to fight not just for affordable health care, but for a more equitably structured society.

According to Page, while the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is an important step toward providing healthcare coverage to 50 million uninsured Americans, it will do nothing to change the for-profit system’s spiraling costs. The PPACA mandates that all Americans carry health insurance, some of whom will be aided by moderately expanded Medicare eligibility and federal subsidies for the poor. It also corrects a few of the egregious flaws in our healthcare system like denial of coverage based on pre-existing conditions. However, because the PPACA just “throws the insurance companies a whole bunch more customers,” instead of setting up a public option, Page says it will not lower healthcare costs. He says a single-payer system like Medicare for all “would be really easy to implement” and much cheaper, but that another wave of serious reform is unlikely anytime soon because it’s “political kryptonite.”

In the short run, Page worries about the congressional supercommittee and likelihood of automatic deep cuts to Medicare and Medicaid if an agreement isn’t reached. Cutting government spending sounds great theoretically, he says, but to him it just means “people are going to get hurt.”

The Occupy doctors are standing shoulder to shoulder with teachers, construction workers and students to demand a broader, more radical social shift toward economic justice. “We have a lot of poor patients directly affected by the way this society is structured to benefit the few who are rich,” says Dr. Asiya Tschannerl, a family doctor from the same Bronx clinic. The marginalized folks these doctors see in their exam rooms in 15-minute increments all day are the so-called working poor, along with the unemployed, undocumented immigrants, the disabled, and the elderly.