“I work in a segregated health-care system.” — Dr. Amuj Rao, intern, Bellevue Hospital, member of the Committee of Interns and Residents [CIR].
NEW YORK, N.Y.—Will the COVID-19 pandemic be the impetus for New York State to enact a law to create a single-payer universal health-care system?

The bill, the New York Health Act, would set up a system similar to Medicare in which the government pays doctors, hospitals, and other providers for services. Unlike Medicare, however, it would not require people to pay premiums or buy additional private insurance, and it would also cover vision, dental, home health care, and long-term care — “without making you exhaust your life savings or bankrupt yourself,” Assembly Health Committee chair Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan), the bill’s longtime sponsor, told reporters at a small rally across the street from Bellevue Hospital May 18.

The case for it is strong “on medical grounds and moral grounds,” New York State Nurses Association [NYSNA] President Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez said. “Clinical control is gone when you have a for-profit system.”

“COVID has made people much more sharply aware of the lethal disparities in health care in our current system,“ Gottfried told LaborPress before the rally. How much that will translate into votes in the state Senate and the Assembly, he says, “is hard to tell.“ Still, the bill has been cosponsored by more than half the members of both houses, and he and Senate sponsor Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) are trying to round up votes and persuade leadership to bring it to the floor.

The state’s largest health-care workers union, 1199SEIU, believes in “universal health-care coverage for every New Yorker,“ vice president Gerard Cadet told the rally.

That upfront support is another political gain for the legislation. Four years ago, when it passed the Assembly but went nowhere in the Senate, 1199SEIU endorsed it, but concentrated its political resources on defending the Affordable Care Act. The union, which runs an extensive network of no-copay clinics for its members, was also reluctant to jeopardize that — something Cadet alluded to when he said the legislation should ensure that “no one is worse off than they were under the previous system.”

Ultimately, he told LaborPress, universal health care is a social-justice issue. The public-hospital social workers, physicians’ assistants, pharmacists, and licensed practical nurses his unit represents regularly see patients arriving in the emergency room with advanced diseases because they couldn’t get preventive care, and elderly people skimping on their medication.

“You can’t say you care about people if you don’t care about them staying alive,“ he says. Having medical benefits be universal, he added, would free unions to bargain over wages and working conditions.

People often say they are against single-payer health care because they have great insurance coverage, Assemblymember Karines Reyes (D-Bronx) told the rally, “until they find themselves in a situation where they find out they are not covered — a car accident, a stroke.”

Reyes said that when she was a nurse, she spent too much time arguing with insurance companies to get them to pay for medical equipment, such as bath chairs, for patients being discharged from the hospital. More recently, she noted, the United Healthcare insurance company dropped Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx from its network, leaving patients without coverage for the doctors they’d been seeing. 

“Just because you have health insurance does not mean you have access to care,” said Rivera.

“We live and I work in a segregated health-care system,“ said Dr. Amuj Rao, and intern at Bellevue and member of the Committee of Interns and Residents. He described a patient of his, a middle-aged man with leukemia who was “dumped” at Bellevue by a more expensive hospital. “They looked at him at a dollar sign and not a human being,” Rao said.

The current system has been so warped by profit, Sheridan-Gonzalez said, that when one of her patients came into the emergency room with a bee stuck in her ear and the bee died, the insurance company wouldn’t pay for having its remains extracted — on the grounds that since the bee was dead, it was no longer an emergency.

The pandemic has also brought into question the longstanding U.S. system of having working people get whatever health insurance they have through their jobs.  

“How crazy is it to have a system that ties health care to employment, when you might need health care more when you don’t have employment?” City Councilmember Brad Lander asked.

Gottfried, who first introduced a single-payer bill almost 30 years ago — credits NYSNA with giving him the idea — said the system would save $55 billion a year “that we now spend on insurance-company bureaucracy and marketing,” sparing doctors the administrative costs of arguing with insurers, and negotiating lower drug prices.

“They say that’s socialism. What is wrong with socialism in health care?” asked Bellevue nurse Kim Behrens.

The Assembly Health Committee has approved the bill, but its Senate counterpart has not. But it has 33 cosponsors in the upper house, more than it has ever received before, says Rivera, the committee’s chair.

“I remain committed to the idea that we can move something this year,” he told LaborPress after the rally. “I’m working on it.” 


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