Occupy Wall Street

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.

Dr. Matt Anderson, another family doctor at the clinic, says it’s “daunting” to invest time and energy into Bronx kids only to see them crushed by the system, dropping out of school, joining gangs, ending up in jail at Rikers Island. “It feels really sad to work so hard to develop healthy young boys and then see them as fodder for the prison industrial-complex,” he told me.

The doctors maintain they can only do so much. They see patients who need jobs, housing and education, not just asthma inhalers.

Anderson notes that those who live in grinding poverty actually keep New York running. “It’s one city,” he says, “and the people we take care of are the working people who work in the restaurants and do the cleaning. They’re part of this enormous machine. They’re not benefitting from it, but they’re part of the same machine.”

The doctors sense that Occupy Wall Street has the potential to effect real change. Page maintains that the way the movement is structured is itself a model for a more equitable society. Instead of fighting greed with more greed, “they are giving.” Food, medical supplies, books. Page hopes this movement will start change the way people think. “This whole system that has been set up glamorizes greed, allows it to be moral. That’s what needs to change...This could be a movement that makes compassion good again.”

In hopes of being part of that change, the Bronx doctors of Healthcare for the 99% will be a regular presence at OWS events and will be holding teach-ins every Saturday at Zuccotti Park. On Wednesday, Healthcare for the 99% held a march of its own, starting with a speak-out at Zuccotti, moving on to the Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield offices and then to St. Vincent’s Medical Center, which was shut down in 2010.

As part of the Occupy Wall Street healthcare working group, the doctors have coordinated with various physicians’ associations and National Nurses United to set up a medical tent and a mental health tent at Zuccotti Park. Occupiers, many of whom haven’t seen a doctor in decades, have access to medical screenings, first aid and psychiatric help. Flu shots are in the works as winter approaches.

Tschannerl hopes that the respect Americans have for their doctors will bolster the movement. She says it’s regrettable that the presence of white-collar professionals somehow confers extra “legitimacy” to the growing movement that was initially denigrated for being run by grungy, confused kids. “It was ridiculous the amount of attention we were getting just because we’re physicians,” she says. “It shouldn’t be like that...but maybe we can take advantage of it.”

Tschannerl hopes the sight of doctors marching on Broadway or volunteering at Zuccotti Park will help raise awareness of the many interrelated socioeconomic factors that affect the health and well-being of the growing underclass. “If we can do anything to help people gain control of those other factors then we can help them be healthy,” says Tschannerl.

After all, as Page says, “that should be the true Hippocratic oath.”

Healthcare For the 99%can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Erika Eichelberger is a freelance journalist and an intern at The Nation. She has written for the Indypendent and the Brooklyn Rail and has interned at Democracy Now! Follow her on Twitter @erika_eee.
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