Graduate Students fight for Healthcare at Villanova University

By Harrison Farina, Montgomery County Healthcare Rights Committee

The COVID-19 pandemic has ignited a flame of graduate student-organizing at Villanova University, where I study and teach. Villanova conveniently classifies us as students, even though we do enormous amounts of labor for the university in the form of: teaching, reading, publishing, presenting, and promoting the school’s image. During our studies, we are subject to an extremely intense professionalization process in which we are said to be “branded” by Villanova. How, though, can they brand us without offering us neither basic human needs nor protection?

I believe they call us students because they want to silence our discontent with unsafe working conditions. We are not offered healthcare, and many of us are under- or uninsured. For years, we have been pleading with the school to provide healthcare to graduate student employees. Amid COVID-19, it became clear that Villanova’s Catholic values are just a veneer to cover what they really care about: making money.

The university took only one measure to address our COVID-19 concerns: they gave us the opportunity to apply for $1000 available through CARES Act funding. At the same time, they discouraged students from applying for this aid money. The fund required us to prove our hardship and the application was dehumanizing, making us prove our suffering.

This fight has taught me a lot about how power holders and decision makers tend to act when called upon to help those in need. The process of getting CARES funds signaled to me that this “aid” was just a way for the school to confuse us, appease us, and slow us down in our attempts to organize around healthcare. Instead, graduate students established our own summer support fund. Using my knowledge of Projects of Survival, I helped implement a “Summer Survival Fund,” which was a quick payout system to get support for medical, housing, food, or any other emergency expenses. The fund both addressed our material needs and was a way to build organizational power and collectivity; it was a testament to the success of the organization of the poor.

Now, Villanova has decided to reopen its campus for fall classes. While I can work from home this academic year, most of my peers are not so lucky. They are forced to go back to teach classes on campus. If I had to return to campus, I would constantly be afraid of getting sick. I would feel uncomfortable visiting any family or going to any organizing events, because I would be afraid of spreading the virus. If I were forced into this situation, as so many are, I don’t know what my life would be like.

To me, the wave of school reopenings is genocidal, because millions of children and essential workers are being forced to march to their deaths. Children could have life-long complications from COVID-19, both physical and psychological. Children are unique, because they will be affected by this for much longer, but they do not compose the majority of the enormous and rising death toll in this country. Not only children, but Black people, Latinx people, essential workers, homeless people, and the elderly are being killed by this system in huge numbers. For the sake of them and all of us, we need to replace this cruel and evil economic system with a system that supports human life. We must be ready to paint the portrait of a world governed by life, not profit.

Statewide Action: Medicaid Marches! 

People First! PA, a grassroots human rights organization with nine Healthcare Rights Committees representing members across the state, held MEDICAID MARCHES in seven locations across Pennsylvania during the first week of October. Marches were held in Altoona, Johnstown, South Central, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Wilkes-Barre and Montgomery County by the local Healthcare Rights Committees.

We demanded that Gov. Wolf apply for a Federal Waiver to expand Medicaid to all PA residents, and pass legislation to establish an Office of the Public Healthcare Advocate to secure the human right to healthcare.

Medicaid Marches were also held in states across the country in coordination with partner organizations in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival as part of the national launch of the Nonviolent Medicaid Army, which is mobilizing through the healthcare crisis to unite the poor and dispossessed across lines of division.

This is one of the largest annual pushes that PPF-PA makes to get our message out and base-build throughout the state while also putting power holders on notice. These marches also uplift our member’s voices and develop leaders.

Visit our blog for brief report backs from each Medicaid March. Visit our facebook for the Medicaid March photo album and for livestreams from each action!

Johnstown

On Tuesday, September 29th, the Johnstown Healthcare Rights Committee took to the streets. They brought the Johnstown City Council a letter with demands you can read here. Johnstown City Council has plans to increase the police department’s budget by $250,000 and hire new officers, at a time when the city can barely balance its budget and despite the department’s track record of violence. We don’t need more cops! We need our city and state elected leaders to put our tax dollars into healthcare, housing, Covid19 testing, and other resources for poor and dispossessed people to get through this crisis!

Lancaster

On Saturday, October 3rd the Lancaster & York HRCs marched together around St. Joseph Hospital for their “South Central Medicaid March”, they spoke truth to power and made demands of the following healthcare profiteers and elected officials that represent both counties, UPMC, Penn Medicine, WellSpan, local City & County Government, Governor Wolf & Pennsylvania state legislators, Washington Place Equities, HDC MidAtlantic, Lancaster & York County Judges and District Attorneys. To hear full details about their demands see link to the video here.

Philadelphia

The Philadelphia HRC held our Medicaid March on Thurs. October 1st – taking the street to indict the system that denies us our Human Right to Healthcare, and show the power of the Nonviolent Medicaid Army! We started out at the former Inquirer building, which the city is spending $300 to renovate into the new police headquarters, and we marched, drummed & chanted to the empty former Hahnemann University Hospital down the street. We raised up these major demands: 1) For Governor Wolf to seize Hahnemann and re-open it as a public hospital! Re-invest the $300 million earmarked for the renovation of the police headquarters. 2) For Gov. Wolf to apply for a federal waiver to expand Medicaid to all PA residents. 3) For the PA Legislature to create an Office of the Public Healthcare Advocate. 4) Restore the adult dental benefit in Medicaid that was cut in 2011. We also celebrated the historic victory of the residents of the James Talib Deam camp on the parkway – winning the demand of immediate permanent housing!  

Pittsburgh & Mon Valley

On Thursday, October 1st, the Nonviolent Medicaid Army hit the streets of Pittsburgh to say:

📣 NO CUTS to Medicaid when the state decides the budget.
📣 Gov. Wolf: Expand Medicaid to all PA residents!
📣 PA Legislature: Create an office of the Public Healthcare Advocate to fight for our healthcare rights!
📣 Peduto/Fitzgerald: TAX UPMC to fund public health, housing, education, transit!
📣 Peduto/Fitzgerald: End racial disparities in covid impacts in Allegheny County where Black people are twice as likely to get sick!
📣 Fitzgerald: Mass Covid Testing in ACJ and in other vulnerable communities in Allegheny County 
📣 UPMC: Tell us what you did with your billion dollar bailout. Cancel medical debt and pay what you owe us – taxes, living wages, hazard pay, now!

Amazing leadership from our Mon Valley and Pittsburgh Healthcare Rights Committees!

Altoona

On Saturday, October 3rd, The Altoona Medicaid March gathered near UPMC Altoona and demanded UPMC stop profiting off of our sickness!

Montgomery County

On Saturday, October 3rd, Montco HRC had a caravan rather than a march, in order to hit targets distanced from each other.  We went first to a corporate office of Aetna, which denied critical medications to two of our members and countless others.  Four “pallbearers” marched a coffin to its big sign and spoke of a for-profit “healthcare system” incentivized to deny care.  Next we stopped at  Norristown State Hospital, where a lack of PPE and transparency resulted in 10 patient deaths from COVID-19 and hundreds of infected staff.  An HRC member spoke of deplorable conditions and treatment when she was a patient there. We closed at Einstein Medical Center and spoke about how Philadelphia’s Jefferson Health system is trying to buy it, making it part of their growth in the last few years from 3 to 14 hospitals.  We noted how Jefferson’s CEO makes close to $2 million a year, even though the hospital is a “non-profit.”  Our overall message focused on how healthcare cannot be a human right in a system where corporate (and non-profit) giants are gobbling each other up in a fight for dominance and profit.  Several of our wonderful new members took important roles in planning, giving speeches and MC-ing the event—so our caravan was a leadership development success. For videos and photos visit facebook.com/montcohrc. 

Northeast PA

On Friday, October 2nd at 3:30 pm we gathered at the Public Square in Wilkes Barre. We then marched to the Police Headquarters and ended at the County Assistance Office. 

We marched to raise up the story of Shaheen Mackey, who died in police custody during a medical emergency in Wilkes Barre. We march for all those who have been victims of state violence including the nearly 190,000 and counting dead from the coronavirus pandemic.

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Keep an eye out for additional blog post about the marches in the near future!

Links to Coverage about PPF-PA Medicaid Marches 

Multiple local news outlets covered the Medicaid Marches across the state. Stay tuned for additions! Shout out to Put People First! PA’s Media & Communications team for extensive work on press releases, calls and follow up.

Johnstown 

Tribune-Democrat Group demands police funds be directed to mental health

Lancaster

Penn Capital Star Amid pandemic, advocacy group wants Wolf, Legislature to extend Medicaid to all

Fox 43 Activists march for Medicaid for all

Pittsburgh

WESA Demonstrators March Downtown Calling For Medicaid For All, Taxes For UPMC

WPXI Demonstrators march in Pittsburgh and other cities to expand Medicaid

NEPA

Fox56 Healthcare activists march in Wilkes-Barre for expanded Medicaid across the state

Nonviolent Medicaid Army in Other States

Through our connection with the Poor People’s Campaign, our concept of a Nonviolent Medicaid army has spread throughout the County! Below, you can find examples of news coverage of the Medicaid Marches that were held in other states such as Vermont, Kansas, Maine, Wisconsin, New York, and North Carolina. Forward together! 

Wisconsin

North Carolina

Groups marching in downtown Fayetteville call for Medicaid expansion