Progressives came together early to launch a once-in-a-lifetime effort by creating Health Care for America Now (HCAN) in the summer of 2008 to lead the grassroots campaign for health care reform.
HCAN ran an unprecedented field program of 1,000 groups in 50 states representing 30 million people. Bringing together community organizers, nurses, doctors, small-business owners, faith-based groups, organizations representing people of color, and seniors, we built coalitions in 44 states, generating an impressive level of grassroots activity. We complemented the work on the ground with paid advertising and worked closely with allies such as Organizing For America (OFA).
We began the campaign by attacking the insurance industry as the chief villain in the story of America’s health insurance crisis. Early local events targeted the industry’s trade organization, and HCAN’s first major television ad featured a woman who was battling cancer and was willing to take on the insurance companies and the politicians who side with them. This message mobilized the progressive base and moved people in the “middle.”
In years past, reformers would chant, “Insure the Uninsured.” We won Obamacare with placards that said, “Big Insurance Makes Me Sick” and “It’s a crime to deny our care.” We campaigned against the insurance industry’s stranglehold on our health care, which gave them carte blanche to deny coverage and benefits and jack up our rates with impunity. We asked members of Congress whose side they were on – consumers or the insurance companies. We ran television ads that ended with the tagline, “If the insurance companies win, you lose.”
We won the law by framing the health insurance crisis in a way that spoke to a majority of Americans. Small businesses, unions, health advocacy groups and women’s organizations all used different messaging than in other health care fights, when the issue was defined as covering the uninsured and to a lesser extent reducing overall health care costs.
We talked about people being denied needed care and getting dropped from private coverage because they got sick. We emphasized that medical bills were crushing small businesses, making large businesses uncompetitive and bankrupting families, including millions who had health insurance. We highlighted cancer patients who couldn’t afford to live because the cost of their care exceeded a lifetime or annual limit they never knew existed in their policies. We drew attention to women whose coverage was rescinded because they were diagnosed with cancer or because the insurance company considered them at higher risk for breast cancer. We also continued to raise awareness of the health care system’s unconscionable impact on the uninsured, including the thousands who die every year for lack of insurance, the inadequate access to quality care, racial and ethnic disparities in health outcomes and more.
Once the bill became law, HCAN and its national labor partners along with allied organizations such as CAP, Community Catalyst and Families USA, fought back hard against the ACA attacks in a myriad of ways. Working with unions like AFSCME, SEIU and our field partners, HCAN broadened its “which side are you on” organizing around Obamacare to protecting Medicare and Medicaid and calling for wealthy Americans and big corporations to pay their fair share in taxes.
Organizing with such groups as The Other 98%, HCAN also exposed the role of extremists like the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, who fund such front groups as Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks to campaign for repeal of the law. For example, HCAN convened a broad swath of national organizations to spark the first public protest of the Koch brothers at a strategy meeting of right-wing millionaires and billionaires in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in January 2011. At CIGNA Corp.’s 2010 shareholder meeting, HCAN activists elicited the first public confirmation that CIGNA and other health insurance companies laundered $102.4 million through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to oppose health care reform even as the industry was publicly claiming it supported it. This corporate accountability work has helped highlight the issue of secret money and the corrosive role of corporations and super-rich people in American politics.
HCAN’s success and longevity were rooted in the long-standing commitment of our partners to quality, affordable health care. That commitment is stronger than ever. Labor will continue playing a leadership role in protecting and improving the ACA and advancing a broad economic security agenda. Community organizations will keep working with labor, faith, civil rights and other groups on critical issues including health care, immigration reform, voting rights and raising the minimum wage.
HCAN is proud to have played a role in the extraordinary nationwide effort to win health care reform. We are deeply grateful to the national and state partners who built this coalition and made possible its success, along with our online and field activists who participated in hundreds of actions. Without you, our coalition wouldn’t have won the biggest expansion of access to health care in the last half century. We bring our campaign to a close confident that our partners will continue to work together in the struggle for social and economic justice.
For a history of the campaign, see Richard Kirsch’s Fighting for our Health: The Epic Battle to Make Health Care A Right In The United States and Marc Stier’s Grassroots Advocacy and Health Care Reform: The HCAN Campaign in Pennsylvania.