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Originally published May 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 31, 2009 at 12:29 AM

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Thousands hit Seattle streets seeking changes to health care

Thousands joined a health-care rally and later a mellow, slow-moving parade in downtown Seattle, complete with belly dancers, drums, air horns, children, bicycles and lots of signs, both mass-produced and hand-drawn. Many said they wanted a single-payer national health-insurance system — the type of insurance that's widely used in Europe and Canada.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The crowd was mostly Democratic, but that didn't stop them from shouting down Sen. Patty Murray's general remarks about the need for health-care reform with a more specific call for a single-payer health-insurance system.

Thousands joined a health-care rally and later a mellow, slow-moving parade in downtown Seattle, complete with belly dancers, drums, air horns, children, bicycles and lots of signs, both mass-produced and hand-drawn.

Many said they wanted a single-payer national health-insurance system — the type of insurance that's widely used in Europe and Canada.

Organizers put the crowd size at 3,500. Seattle police gave an estimate of 2,500 as of 1 p.m. — although the crowd seemed to grow as the day wore on.

More than 190 organizations endorsed the rally, including dozens of unions, women's organizations, health-care workers and churches.

Many protesters said health-care changes are needed now because so many people have no health care, whether that's because their employer no longer offers it, it's too expensive or because they're unemployed.

"The system is broken, and it's going to be so complex to fix it that we might as well tear it up and start over," said Larry Neilson, a Seattle medical transcriptionist, echoing a common sentiment.

"I work in health care, and I can't afford insurance," said Neilson, who came to the rally wearing a doctor's white coat with the whimsical name "Dr. Schlock" embroidered over the pocket.

Protesters pointed out that the country has one of the most expensive health-care systems in the world, but lags behind other countries on such health indicators as the infant-mortality rate.

Typical was a banner several protesters carried that read: "Diagnosis: the greedy health insurers are parasites! The cure? Single payer option."

The demonstrators shouted down Murray as she concluded her pro-health-coverage remarks at Pratt Park in Central Seattle, where the march began.

"I am heading back to Washington," Murray started, and was drowned out by chants of "Single payer, single payer!"

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Protesters said they were disappointed that Murray hasn't said anything in support of the single-payer option.

"Did you see Patty Murray shouted down?" asked Stuart Ferguson, a Democratic precinct committee chairman for the 46th District. "I hope she took notice. The more people that do it, the more successful we'll be."

Ferguson said he voted for President Obama, but he's disappointed the administration has invited insurance companies to the negotiating table.

He and many other protesters said they fear the administration's efforts at change won't go far enough.

But when they chanted for Obama to pay attention to their concerns, the crowd did it in Spanish, not English. The chant, "Obama, escucha, estamos en la lucha," means, "Obama, listen, we are in the fight."

Barbara Hansen and Sara Baldwin, both of Seattle, said they each had children who had just graduated, or were about to graduate, from college and could no longer receive health care through their parents' plans.

If her daughter got into a serious bike accident on the way to work, it would cost the family so much money that it could force them to sell their house, Hansen said.

"There are so many more uninsured people today than there were a year ago," said Linda Arkava, a cardiac nurse at Swedish Medical Center, who spoke to the crowd just before Murray did.

"I see thousands of dollars wasted when people are unnecessarily admitted. They come to us needing acute care — it costs so much more money, and they suffer so much more."

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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