ALBANY — Hundreds of people Monday afternoon laid down in front of the state Capitol and proceeded to die.
As the group stopped traffic at Washington and Hawk and sprawled across the pavement, standing activists encircled their bodies with sidewalk chalk as if they had been murdered.
Those lying on the scorched blacktop held tombstones with impassioned messages, including “Killed by Albany’s inaction,” “Died by political cowardice,” and “Rest In Peace” to memorialize the New Yorkers who died without access to health care.
Hundreds of activists of all ages marched and shouted for several hours Monday, urging legislators to pass the New York Health Act, which would create a single-payer health care system for all New York residents.
“Every problem we have is health and health care —every problem is made worse and harder to solve because of the way this country pays for health care,” said bill sponsor Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan.
The bill, if signed into law, would provide all state residents and full-time workers with health insurance for primary and preventive care, hospitalization, mental health, treatment for substance-use, reproductive health, dental, vision, hearing, long-term care and prescription drugs.
An income-based graduated tax would fund the single-payer health care system.
About one-third of state households that have health coverage go without necessary treatment because they cannot afford it, Gottfried said.
“Nobody thinks that’s acceptable,” the assemblyman and Health Committee chairman said, adding opponents to the Health Act do not have an alternative proposal. “Now is the time to put up or shut up. Now is the time to say either, ‘It’s just too bad if families are bankrupt because of health care costs,’ or are we going to say ‘This is New York, we’re going to do something about it’?”
The Health Act passed the Assembly four consecutive years from 2015 to 2018. Democrats, who secured a new supermajority in the Senate after the elections last November, are hopeful the bill will pass this week before session ends Thursday.
Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, D-Queens, was elected last November after campaigning to pass the Health Act.
“We’re pushing — I’m the ever-optimist,” she said. “I’m going to fight for the bitter end.”
A majority of lawmakers have signed on to support the measure, said González-Rojas, who has a background in health care and ran the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice for 13 years.
The assemblywoman cited powerful health insurance companies as a main talking point in pushing the Health Act forward. The bill would reimagine the state’s industry.
“Their profits are part of this, and they’re powerful, but honestly, this is a jobs bill — this would bring jobs, bring health care,” González-Rojas said. “When everyone’s healthy, the community’s healthy the state is healthy. There are so many more benefits to a universal single-payer plan. The insurance executives will find another way.
“...but I see no reason [it shouldn’t pass]. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m sure as hell going to fight for it.”
Various groups, organizations and unions have pushed support for the Health Act, which has been a proposed bill in the state Legislature for 29 years.
Beverly Miller, a nurse assistant Long-term Care in East Greenbush, Rensselaer County, said 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, a union representing 450,000 health workers in the state, supports the bill because of patients with advanced-stage illnesses.
“By then, they are all so ill, they need a skilled nursing facility,” Miller said. “There are seniors who skip on their meds because they cannot afford to pay for their prescriptions, and many of those wind up in long-term care. ...Too many New Yorkers are forced to make impossible choices between health care coverage and paying their bills.”
Activists Monday spoke out against the state and nation’s for-profit health system, which is an incentive for insurance companies to inflate treatment and medication costs.
One patient of Miller’s paid $250 per month for his health coverage.
2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, actor and activist Cynthia Nixon recalled when she was 13, her mother found a lump in her breast. Unemployed at the time, Nixon’s mother got the first job she could snag that offered health care benefits.
“She stayed quiet for two months because she didn’t want to go to the doctor the first day and have it be called a pre-existing condition,” Nixon said. “Then she went to the doctor and he pointed it out to her and chastised her for not being more aware with her body and what was going on with it.
“That was 42 years ago, and very little has changed,” continued Nixon, now 55. “We want this bill passed this session! What are we waiting for? People are dying out here. ...The other side are fighting to hold onto money, and the people on our side are fighting for people’s lives.”
Legislative Republican leaders reaffirmed their opposition to the Health Act on Monday at a joint press conference in front of the Million Dollar Staircase.
“I think it would just bankrupt the state of New York — there’s just simply no way the state of New York could afford it,” said Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda. “It would put a ton of people out of work, and I think you would also deprive a ton of people of health plans they actually like and need now more than ever.”
Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay spoke against the Health Act for financial reasons, citing the state’s $212 billion 2021-22 budget, passed with $6.7 billion in new tax increases and three income tax rate hikes this year.
“Someone tell me how we’re going to get to $250 billion to support this, and all for what? Worse service?” Barclay said. “We have some problems with our health services, but socializing and making government in charge of it, I don’t think is the answer.”
Activists disregarded Monday’s blistering heat, which surpassed 90 degrees in Albany by mid-afternoon, and started marching at 10:30 a.m. at Washington Park. They arrived at the Capitol about 90 minutes later, rallying for nearly two more hours.
Demonstrators included health care workers, union leaders, small business owners, interfaith leaders and New Yorkers from across the state.