Paul Engler Update: The Story Which Needs To Be Told

December 23rd, 2009

I apologize for the long wait for an update about myself and the Center for the Working Poor, the Burning Bush community. We have been very busy. This year we are serving more families than ever due to the economy, which hotel companies have used as an excuse to fire injured workers and union activists. Our outreach to families has been greatly expanded by my coworker Sam Pullen, who joined the Center full time last year and has amazing Spanish language and mariachi skills. In addition to our services, we are always coming up with big plans to transform the world, or sometimes they come to us — I am not sure which. We are beginning to get more calls from social justice and environmental groups because of our growing reputation for planning big protests, hunger strikes, and mass nonviolent civil disobedience for social justice causes. So I am proud to announce we have a plan for thousands to protest and get arrested in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience to win health care reform and global climate justice in a city near you!

If you want to see what we are doing without reading my long email of Paul Engler adventures you can go to these two websites to find out more about the actions we’re working on: http://www.mobilizeforhealthcare.org and http://www.beyondtalk.net.


Let’s Tell Our Story of Health Care:

The health care stories that have dominated the press over the summer have been of angry protesters at town hall meetings. These protesters are driven by unrealistic fears of a “government takeover,” not by what is actually happening. “Government death panels are going to pull the plug on grandma, and socialized medicine is going to make you die waiting in the emergency room for care.” Many do not realize that millions of dollars from insurance companies have gone into mobilizing these very scared people. Numerous cleverly funded groups have literally done polling to find what people are most scared of and then they mobilized them to protest against any reform. You can see their names conservative for Patient Rights, Freedom Works, and American for Prosperity on all the protest signs, and all the busses that carry them.

The complaints about Medicare – the biggest existing government-run health care program – denying care are almost nonexistent in comparison. Strangely, many among the angry town hall protesters shout or carry signs that say “keep your government hands off of my Medicare.” These people apparently don’t realize that Medicare is a government program, a very popular one at that. In fact, a new poll actually says that 39 percent of the public do not know Medicare is a government program. And, in contrast to wild fears about government “death panels,” complaints about denial of care concerning Medicare – an actual existing government-run health care program – are almost nonexistent

But the thing that saddens me is that the real stories are not leading the debate. The real death panels are the insurance companies that already deny care to sick people everyday. Most families have a story to tell about the horrors of private health insurance. 22 percent of medical claims to California’s biggest insurance companies are denied. The chances are that an insurance company has denied you care sometime in your past. For example, my fellow volunteer at the Center, Sam Pullen, is like millions in America who have a family member who was denied treatment by insurance companies. Even though he grew up as the child of an affluent doctor, whose family was covered by expensive health insurance, his mother who was dying of cancer had to fight her insurance company for coverage of her essential care throughout her final years.

I have a story of my own which is one of the legends of my family. When I was 12, I had a freak accident at a party over at a friends house. A toy ice cream cone that we were throwing around hit my eye at just the right angle creating what in medical terms is called hyphema—a painful injury in which the eye socket fills with blood and creates tremendous pressure on the eye ball, obscuring vision for days with a threat of permanent loss of sight. There was such an intense pain in my eye that I crawled to the bathroom to peer in the mirror. When I saw my eye socket filled with blood, I screamed in shock.

My brothers and some friends rushed me over to the hospital, because we were all scared I might lose my eyesight from the looks of it. There was a few minutes of rushed information exchanged with the hospital administrators about my mom’s insurance and my condition, then an examination from a nurse, who cringed at the condition of my eye. The eye might be lost they declared, but I was not eligible for treatment because it was not considered an emergency and my mom was not there. That night my single mom was at a funeral in rural Wisconsin, and we could not get a hold of her over the phone. My brother was 17, and although he was my caretaker at the moment, he was not my legal guardian. For fear of a variety of problems related to our American private health insurance system, the hospital said that I was not to be treated.

My condition seemed to be getting worse, and the horror that I was likely to loose my eye set in. I had a panic attack and curled up in a ball, hyperventilating on the hospital floor. My brother and a handful of his gang of high school friends started a spontaneous and unplanned form of protest in which they all engaged in a yelling match with the hospital administrators behind the desk. The whole emergency room was lit up with screaming, arguing, and confrontation as I was crying and hyperventilating for what seemed like ages on the cold tile floor.

After a half an hour or so, to placate all the commotion, they put us in a private waiting room for an hour until a doctor examined me. The doctor immediately pronounced my condition an emergency. Indeed, I needed treatment to save my eye, and he apologized profusely for the conduct of the hospital administrators. So that my eye could be stabilized, I had to lay in a hospital bed with my head still and blinded with bandages on both eyes for a week. That night my brother Francis slept in a chair by my hospital bed as I passed out in exhaustion from the aftermath of such trauma.

My story is a uniquely American story because in any other industrialized democracy it would never have happened. I would have gotten treatment immediately. Hospital administrators would not have been scared about the insurance companies not paying, or have been overloaded by this system that leaves millions without insurance in the emergency room.

So it was very emotional for me when, after leaving my job to give my life to service at the Center, my older brother scolded me for not having health insurance. This was one of my biggest fears of living a simple life in solidarity with the poor. Myself and the other full time volunteers at the Center are like over 50 million people who are poor, unemployed, or have “preexisting conditions” in America — we cannot get health insurance. I now can speak with experience about the conditions for the uninsured.

I have used the free clinic system in Los Angeles since forming the Center, and it has been remarkably good to me in my yearly or so visits to the doctor. But my visit to the emergency room at the Los Angeles county hospital is a whole different story. The reason people go to the emergency room is that they need care immediately — but few but the ones with gaping wounds are treated. Most of the others are left to wait in lines in pain for so long that the emergency rooms seem like miserable refugee camps on the edges of a war zone. Hundreds wait in pain, sick and feverish, in the cramped halls of the hospital. There are many lines, with no one to direct you from line to line. Many get lost in the system—lines to get a card, lines to get a number, lines to check your status, lines to see a doctor, lines for the bathroom, lines for information, and a line for security.

This confused and huddled mass of patients is one of the most incredible scenes of pain and suffering I have ever experienced in the US. And it is there everyday, anytime, for anyone to witness. People are huddled together in groups that naturally form when you are forced into such inhospitable conditions for hours. There is a unique atmosphere there, like in the midst of a natural disaster, when the usual norms of human conduct no longer apply, and people revert to basic survival instincts as they wait for literally 12- 24 hours without leaving one room with hundreds of people in it. People form a sense of community from the common suffering, and there many acts of random kindness to each other. There are also dozens of desperate people who erupt in bursts of anger, yelling, and complaining as they struggle for survival and care. As I waited, I kept on asking, “How long is this wait time?” No one but my fellow patients seemed to care enough to answer. “This line or the next or all together? I have been waiting for 12 hours.” Yet this is nothing. Once when I was staying at the Catholic worker in Houston (which has the longest emergency room waits in the country), I met a severely famished and sickly AIDS patient who had camped out for two days in the emergency room before being seen by a doctor.

It makes me so mad.

At the Center a few weeks ago, we helped lead a local protest for health care reform that was part of a Moveon.org day of actions in almost every city in America. Over 300 people gathered outside of our senator’s office, sharing “health care horror stories” of abuse at the hands of private insurance companies, and singing movement songs to maintain a nonviolent presence. Kai, our new full time worker at the Center, declared, “This is not enough.” “The tea baggers are stealing the show and defining the debate in the media,” he said, “we need to have hundreds get arrested in non-violent civil disobedience to put our stories in the spotlight.” “And this is what we know how to do,” he finished. I have to admit – at first, I thought he was crazy. We have no money, and few resources. But after just a few weeks of networking, it became clear that many are interested in the idea, and a few were calling us to make it happen.

“What if?” we thought. What if . . . we did something on the scale the civil rights activists did to revive their movement in 1960 when the segregationists had taken over the debate with ridiculous lies and political maneuvering. A few small groups of activist students sat down at lunch counters in downtown stores in Greensboro then Nashville then Atlanta – and then it spread like wildfire to cities all across the South. Everyone has a story, and it is time for our stories to be told – not about hyped-up fears of government tyranny but about all the pain and suffering that is already happening because of greedy insurance corporations and our broken healthcare system that denies people care.

So here is the plan. . . I recommended watching this wonderful youtube video we put together http://www.youtube.com/user/Mobilize4HealthCare. . . but if that is not working here is our plan in writing. http://www.mobilizeforhealthcare.org

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