Embodying Our Power at the IBX Tower

by Anna Cibils, Philly

I didn’t grow up going to protests or actions. For years after moving to the US I was in the process of applying for US citizenship, and so I learned that any expression of any kind of political opinion could cost me and my family the chance of getting permanent status. I also inherited the fear of governments as an immigrant and the daughter of Argentinian parents who grew up during the military dictatorship in Argentina.

When I joined Put People First!, this fear and aversion to protests was still very real for me. Despite this, through my process of political development in PPF, I have learned the importance of taking direct action. I was an active participant in the protest against Independence Blue Cross (IBX) health insurance company in Philadelphia on July 26, 2017.

The action was one of a series that we have held at the IBX headquarters in Philadelphia as part of our campaign to demand that IBX stop raising premiums on Obamacare plans. Our main demand of IBX this time around was for Daniel Hilferty, the CEO, to attend the Pennsylvania Insurance Department Town Hall in September, to answer to Pennsylvanians who are struggling to afford increasingly unaffordable IBX plans on the Healthcare Marketplace.

The action was organized quickly, but even in a short time the Campaign team and Media and Communications team ensured that the effort was collective — photos by Chris Baker Evens that as many PPF members as possible felt ownership over the action. The day before the action we had a sign-making party where we agreed on the final plan, which included testimonies, chants, and ending with a die-in. I volunteered last-minute to be an MC with fellow member Zack Hershman. I remembered the first time I did canvassing in PPF, I was paired up with Zack and he helped me get over my nerves of talking to people, so I knew I was in good hands for MCing.

The day of the action I actually felt excited, not my usual sickness. I’ve been angry for so long that channeling it at these companies isn’t a problem. As much as I would love to scream out from the rooftops all the ways I’ve been hurt by people in power, I’ve learned that anger on its own will not sustain us — while emotional intelligence is powerful, it must be combined with history to understand how our individual experiences fit inside a much larger narrative and fight. Our stories, relationships, and histories fuel this campaign.

The protest itself was impeccably organized and very moving, with testimonies from people all across the city and surrounding counties. The most powerful moment of the day for me was when several of our South Central PA PPF family joined us as we began the action. Having them there to support us made me feel deeply rooted in our work across PA — what we are facing is not just happening in Philly. The story is the same across our state: companies take advantage of politicians and bureaucrats to maintain an unjust system, where people’s ability to live is dependent on their ability to pay.

Here’s one of my biggest lessons from two years of being involved in this struggle: It doesn’t matter how many times the insurance executives and regulators lecture us that our demands are unrealistic because of markets and profits. It remains a fact that the government and insurance companies continue to prioritize profits over people. They have blood on their hands; we will not be silent. By the end of the action, I felt the importance of visibly embodying our power, our intelligence, our connectedness.

by Hilary O’Connell, Philly, and Campaign Team
Photo: Put People First Members from Philly and South Central PA staged a die-in outside Independence Blue Cross (IBX) Headquarters in Philadelphia, demanding IBX’s attendance at the Southeast PA Town Hall. Credit: Chris Baker Evens

At a Put People First meeting this spring, Robert, a leader from Southwest Philadelphia, pushed us all to hold the Pennsylvania Insurance Department (PID) accountable to create transparency and participation in the “rate review process”: The annual procedure where the PID determines how much insurance companies can charge for Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) plans for individuals and small groups. We won our 2016 campaign for the first public hearing in PA on ACA rates, and we knew that this year we needed to do more. So we sprang into action. In less than three months, we advocated for, planned, and pulled off not one, but five powerful Town Halls all across Pennsylvania — in people’s communities, and at times when working people could attend.
Our efforts paid off: Over 150 people attended Town Halls in Bucks, Northumberland, Blair, York and Allegheny Counties.

The Town Halls achieved many of Put People First’s goals: 1) We built our base and connections with partners across the state. 2) We made the invisible visible by exposing insurance companies as the true power-holders behind PID. 3) We developed and enriched leaders across PPF. And 4) we increased accountability, transparency and participation in the rate review process. This was a clear win. Reflecting on this victory, we ask: Why did we win? How can we win again? The answer is simple: At each step of the process, we all moved together.

This victory belongs to every PPF committee, team, and member.

Karim Sariahmed, a PPF member in Sunbury, opened testimony at the first Town Hall and set the tone for the storytelling that followed: “All of us know people who get sick, and many who die, because they don’t have insurance. And I really want the weight of that to be in the room with us when we’re talking about the decisions that get made about our lives, and our insurance plans.”

Members from across the state testified at the four Town Halls that followed, delivering powerful stories of our struggles. Pittsburgh member Julia Willis spoke: “This is not a humane system. It’s not taking care of us. Healthcare is a human right.” As Philadelphia member Adrienne Standley testified, “I know [PID] isn’t able to change the prices, or tell them what to charge. But I’m not able to afford to go to the doctor.” We insisted the PID recognize our lives are on the line. Each time someone told their story, you could see audience members nodding their heads in agreement.

Through this victory, we forced the PID and the insurance companies to acknowledge Put People First as a powerful voice in PA. While insurance companies themselves did not come to the town halls as we requested, we did receive a request from Independence Blue Cross in to meet in Southeast PA as a result of our pressure.

The Town Halls were an important and successful milestone in the process of building a mass movement in Pennsylvania of everyday people who are clear that healthcare is a human right. As we push forward, we’ll continue to bring people together to speak truth to power. The PID and insurance companies will have to learn: HEALTHCARE IS A HUMAN RIGHT! WE WON’T STOP WITHOUT A FIGHT!

by Irish, Pittsburgh

There is a lot of insecurity in my family around healthcare. Our income has been unstable, and often shrinking, since 2013 when Lyme disease and cancer stopped my partner and me, respectively, from working. The ACA made it possible for us to have access to health insurance, but healthcare costs are our biggest expense and growing every year. So it has been with mixed feelings and an eye toward something better that I have participated in actions to protect the ACA.

Since January, myself and other members of the Pittsburgh HRC (Human Rights Committee) have attended rallies, called and written letters to our federal representatives, gone to town halls, told our stories to the press, and even gone to Washington, DC and been arrested. At every step we think not just about all that we might lose if the ACA is repealed, but also about how we can use this moment to advance PPF’s Healthcare is a Human Right campaign.

When we speak at rallies or to the press, we share our personal stories, then attack insurance companies and profit-driven care and give our vision for a system that puts people first. One PGH member made big, beautiful PPF signs so even just a few of us can make a big splash at any action. We yell the loudest and help lead chants that amplify our message – “Medicaid not millionaires” instead of “ACA here to stay.” We always bring a clip- board with a PPF sign-up sheet.

In March we hosted a action training led by national organizers to protect the ACA where we learned about bird-dogging, a tactic to force politicians to take a stance on an issue. That same week we used our new skills to bird-dog our state representatives for a hearing on universal healthcare. We continue to invite those who came to the training to PPF events and one is even on the HRC now.

When I participated in civil disobedience in the Senate office buildings in DC, I got to spend several hours with activists from across PA. I told them about all our exciting work in PPF and I bet I will see them again.

I am proud of the work we have done to protect the gains made by the ACA. I’m even more proud of how we’ve taken a fight for a mediocre law and turned it into opportunity after opportunity for PPF’s Healthcare is a Human Right campaign. It’s easy to see the impact of our participation and leadership, both in how the healthcare debate is framed, and literally in the faces of our membership. Whatever does or doesn’t happen with the ACA this year, there is no question that PPF is better off for having participated in the fight!