CHICAGO, March 21 — Hospital workers on the picket line noticed an older man marching with them shaking his fist as they all yelled, “They say cut back, we say FIGHT BACK!” He was wearing a hospital gown under his coat. The dozens of hospital workers, community members and students protesting in front of Stroger Hospital of Cook County had attracted some patients, too. The protest was sparked by the plans of the County Board to close two of the three hospitals in Chicago’s public system, turning the patients out to fend for themselves.
PL’ers at the hospital, meeting with Coalition Against The Cuts in Healthcare (CATCH), had heard the most dramatic aspect of this particular cutback at a meeting weeks earlier. A nurse from Oak Forest Hospital, one of the hospitals about to be closed, described the plight of patients in the chronic ventilator unit, some of whom had been living there attached to breathing machines for many years. “They’re more like family than patients to me,” she explained. “We’ve been together for years.” These patients had been given a deadline of the end of the month to find themselves a nursing home to be transferred to. “This unit is closing,” they were told.
“I’ve known many patients from here who left for nursing homes,” said Michael Yanul, an Oak Forest ventilator patient with muscular dystrophy who tells his story on YouTube. “They all died. And that’s what frightens me.”
Hospital workers showed up at board meetings, calling the planned hospital closures murder and pointing out the racist nature of this attack on facilities serving mostly black and immigrant patients. One doctor pointed out the similarity of these deadly cuts to the way the Germans freed up hospital beds in preparation for World War II by gassing the chronic patients in public hospitals in a program they called “euthanasia.” The doctor suggested the label “administrative euthanasia” to describe the County’s cut-back plan.
The nurse from the CATCH meeting testified before the County Board Finance Committee and held up pictures of patients slated for eviction from the ventilator unit. “These people can’t be here to speak for themselves and so I told them I could tell their story here. Closing this unit is tantamount to murder!” When she finished speaking the hundreds of people in the jammed meeting room stood up and applauded. When she came to work the next day, she was sent home on “administrative leave” for “violating the patients’ confidentiality.”
Others who had heard this nurse at the CATCH meeting were furious and started circulating a petition defending her. They also went to support her at her disciplinary hearing, but her union, wishing to avoid “interference by radicals,” arranged with management to move the hearing 30 miles away to another venue at the last minute.
Solidarity Backs Nurse
Three other hospital workers came up with another way to show their solidarity. They went to Oak Forest Hospital during visiting hours and talked with staff and patients on the long-term vent unit. Both staff and patients wanted to help the nurse who was wrongly accused of “violating patient confidentiality.” The ventilator patients gladly agreed to sign consent forms to be photographed again for the purposes of getting their story out at an upcoming CATCH demonstration in front of Stroger Hospital. One man, David Moreno, paralyzed from the neck down, held the ballpoint pen in his teeth to make an “X” on the consent form.
The afternoon of the picket line, teachers brought along their high school students to learn first-hand about the nature of health care in Chicago. Once a hospital worker explained the story behind the huge faces (the patient photos had been made into 3-foot posters) he said, “They’re doing that?! Putting those people out, when they are on breathing machines? Give me that poster!” This youth had one of the strongest voices leading the chants. (Hear and see the demo at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLtc_DyJ5X4.) The demonstration involved a number of our friends and long-time CHALLENGE readers. One doctor who participated was later called into his boss’s office for questioning but once he showed the signed consent forms, the matter was dropped.
On March 21st the Illinois Health Facilities Board held their meeting to decide whether or not to grant a permit for the closing of Oak Forest Hospital of the Cook County Health System. Two busloads of hospital workers and community members sat and stood all around the large meeting room holding protest signs with pictures of the long-term patients. The protesters were silent at first but then, the same nurse (“They’re more like family”) stepped out and asked for permission to address the Board.
‘Are you going to kill these people?’
When she was denied, the number of voices protesting increased. “Are you just going to kill these people?” “How come you can find money to give the administrators raises but you can’t afford to care for patients?” The Chairman had to recess the meeting to restore order. In the end, the Facilities Board decided to deny Cook County permission to close Oak Forest Hospital, telling them to return in six months with a clear plan that would avoid harm to uninsured patients in Cook County. The protesters cheered.
We all know this is not the end, but it gives us time to organize a bigger fight-back for the next round. From the perspective of communists involved in this fight, it has energized our collective, activated some who have been passive and helped develop several less-experienced comrades. One friend, a health worker who has met with our PLP club, said, “What I like about you guys is that you actually do stuff.”
Recruiting new Party members in the struggle is our best strategy against the fascism that is taking shape in health care as it is throughout the U.S. in this run-up to the next World War. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but there are lots of workers out there who, like that nurse, will show their hidden leadership qualities as events unfold.