The CIGNA 7 Get Themselves Arrested

What are the rest of us waiting for?

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Outside an opulent skyscraper in Chicago, a white middle-class lady’s picket sign said it all: “She could not wait!” The sign is filled to overflowing with the photo of a radiant young woman. JENNY, 1984-2009, reads the caption. She was only twenty-five years old.

On a cold Chicago morning, some forty or fifty of us had decided that we couldn’t wait for the House and the Senate to pass a mutilated health-care bill. We held signs and chanted slogans in front of the corporate headquarters: “CIGNA profits, people die, Medicare for all.” Meanwhile, seven principled individuals, including health-care professionals and a physician, had gone inside the glass-domed reception hall to sit down on the floor and demand that the giant insurance company immediately approve all doctor-recommended treatments for its insurees. The police was all they got for an answer.

Jenny Fritts was lucky, and then she was unlucky. She was a young married mother with love in her heart and a second baby in her body, but she didn’t have the right insurance. She woke up feeling sick in the world’s richest country, and she went to a for-profit hospital where they couldn’t treat her. Instead they told her to take some NyQuil and go back to sleep. The next day she still felt sick. She went to another hospital, she was admitted, and it turned out she had a very serious infection. It was too late to save her baby and fifty-two days later she died in an intensive care unit. If you live in the United States, Jenny Fritts is your neighbor, your daughter, your long-lost cousin, your friend. She could be black, she could be white, she could be yellow, she could be brown, and she could very easily be you.

There’s a big open space in front of CIGNA, but in reality the sidewalk there is pretty narrow: “That’s private property, you gotta get back,” said the security guards each time we crossed the invisible line. Inside the building, the accountants charged with making money for CIGNA’s shareholders are the ones who constantly draw that invisible line, separating those who paid their bills and will get their treatment from those who paid their bills and nonetheless will be denied. The movement of the line determines the profits for America’s multi-billion-dollar private insurance industry.

In the public sector over at Cook Country Hospital on Harrison street, where the night before I took my neighbor — another young woman without insurance — the line is different, yet still somehow the same. It’s incredibly long before you get registered, and then you wait and you wait and you wait all night, until they call your name. If you fall asleep at 3 AM, or if you go off looking for another hospital as my neighbor did to no avail, they call your name three times. Those who sleep through it have to sign up again and do the whole thing over. According to the accounting system that we have now, the Emergency Room is a drain on the taxpayer’s money and patients should be discouraged by the length of the wait. My neighbor Courtney was finally admitted at eight in the morning, just hours before I went down to protest at CIGNA. The day before she had been refused treatment at a private place, where they charged 300 dollars cash up front just to have a technician read an existing X-ray and confirm that her fractured elbow would cost too much for someone without a policy. Now she’s still waiting for surgery as I write, five days after slipping down that muddy slope on a weekend trip out to the country.

“Everybody in, nobody out” we chanted as the cops went inside. They hauled ’em out, one by one, they threw the civil disobedience protesters in the paddy wagon and took ’em down to the station. Out on the narrow strip of public sidewalk, Illinois state representative Mary Flowers explained just how wrong the Republican crazies really are, when they claim the health care bills in the House and Senate would result in state-run “death panels” pulling the plug on grandma. The real death panels are the insurance companies, she explained, and not only because the way they pad their pockets is by refusing coverage,  by refusing treatment, by continually drawing the line between their wealth and your well-being. The insurance companies are killing us because they block the path to the single system that can provide medical coverage for everyone, when they need it, regardless of what’s in their pocket at the time.

“Health care is a human right!” chanted the protesters outside. The solution that all the advanced countries except the United States have adopted is a publicly run medical system that covers everyone, without exception — even while the richest will still be free to go to their private doctors and hospitals. The difference is that they will no longer go there with the money they stole from people they claimed to be insuring. Funny thing, in the cafe near the Board of Trade where I went to drink hot tea and escape the rain, some wheeler-dealer types were saying that all anybody wants to invest in right now, in this economy, is insurance. The salary of H. Edward Hanway, CEO of CIGNA,  has gone down because of the economic crisis, poor guy. With bonuses, stock-option gains and other compensations, he only raked in $10.23 million last year, according to Forbes magazine.

Illinois state representative Mary Flowers is the author of an amendment to House Bill 311, called The Health Care for All Illinois Act. As you can read in the text, “It is the purpose of this Act to provide universal access to health care for all individuals within the State, to promote and improve the health of all its citizens, to stress the importance of good public health through treatment and prevention of diseases, and to contain costs to make the delivery of this care affordable.” If passed in Illinois, insurance companies would no doubt challenge it at the national level. And that battle would be another step toward the goal of a decent health-care system for a civilized country.

The protest in front of CIGNA insurance corporation, at 52 Monroe St. in Chicago on October 8, was organized by a local group called Chicago Single Payer Action Network (Chi-SPAN). They are affiliated with a national network called Mobilization for Health Care for All, which has already mounted a similar action in New York City, where seventeen people were arrested. Another action is coming up at an insurance company in LA, and next week, on Thursday October 15, they will help organize actions across the country. As I write, 689 people have pledged to be arrested like the CIGNA 7 and the New York 17, and that number is going up all the time. But you don’t have to let the police throw you inside the wagon. You can protest outside in support, like I did yesterday morning, and you’ll be just as free to show up the next time in solidarity. You can give your name at the station, and you’ll be out in an hour and a half. Or like some of the civil disobedience volunteers, you can refuse to give your name and go to jail like Mahatma Ghandi or Henry David Thoreau.

This is the kind of movement we need in America. It’s local and it’s national, it’s legal and it’s confrontational, it matters to people of all colors and classes and it’s a struggle we can win. Push Barack Obama harder, and you’ll help him become the president we elected him to be! Health care is getting killed by the lobbyists, the politicians and the medical-industry profiteers. It’s high time for the people to take it to the streets.

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2 Responses to “The CIGNA 7 Get Themselves Arrested”

  1. Vanessa Beck Says:

    Nice write-up of the Action. Thank you.

  2. Ricardo Dominguez Says:

    Hola Brian,

    Thanks for the book and for the above essay.
    Great to meet you face to face.

    Best,
    Ricardo

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