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July 13, 2016

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Nijmie Dzurinko, Put People First! PA Campaign Team Coordinator (484) 619-2306

PA residents win first ever public hearing on rising health insurance premiums

What: Public informational hearing on proposed rate increases for individual health plans

Who: Pennsylvania Insurance Department, Put People First! PA and members of the public

When: Wednesday, July 27, 9:30 am [Public testimony begins at 1:00 pm] Full Schedule:

http://www.insurance.pa.gov/Pages/2017-Rate-Filing-Hearing.aspx

Where: Keystone Building, 400 North Street, Harrisburg, PA 17120

Public Utility Commission Hearing Room #1

 

On Wednesday July 27, Pennsylvania will have its first ever public hearing on proposed rate increases on individual and small-employer plans. The hearing, announced on July 1 by the Pennsylvania Insurance Department (PID), was the result of 8 months of pressure and negotiation between the Department and Put People First! PA (PPF-PA), a people’s organization working to increase transparency, equity and participation in Pennsylvania’s healthcare system.

 

“This is a people’s victory. We’re looking forward to sharing our stories and showing the impact on our families when affordable healthcare remains out of reach,” shared Kim Altland, a Put People First leader from York County.

 

Nearly 600 people in 26 counties signed a petition, “Listen to real people before increasing healthcare costs,” that was circulated throughout the state by Put People First members both online and hand-to-hand, delivered on May 25th. On June 1, PPF coordinated a call-in day to the PID which generated one call every 12 minutes requesting a hearing. Additionally, over 20 organizations submitted letters to the PID supporting the request for a hearing in the month of June. According to a Kaiser Health Tracking poll from earlier this year, the cost of healthcare and health insurance was the third most important issue among registered voters after terrorism and the economy/jobs.

 

People across the state have been sharing stories about the impact of increasing healthcare costs on their lives:

 

  • Veronica from Greene County, who detailed the trade-offs of paying for health insurance premiums versus other necessities like housing and food costs.
  • Deirdre from Columbia County, an organic farmer forced off of her farm and back into the job market because she couldn’t afford a Marketplace plan.
  • Sam* from Philadelphia, who was initially elated with a premium of $0.96 in 2014, but recently dropped his insurance, which costs $288 a month this year, not including $179/month for dental insurance.

 

“This is about participation and transparency,” remarked Zachary Hershman of Philadelphia and the Put People First campaign team. “We appreciate the Insurance Department for demonstrating a commitment to these principles. We need a public conversation about healthcare costs that goes beyond the insurance companies’ bottom line.”

 

Premium increases in 2016 impacted 150,000 people across PA. Insurance companies are asking for increases of up to 44.8% in 2017.
*Name changed to protect privacy

 

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by Roger Swartz

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and journey to the other side of the world. Brazil, a vast and beautiful landscape unlike anywhere else on the planet. It’s a country of people that have deep ancestral roots and a strong connection to the culture that is borne from those roots. The land, culture, and history makes the Brazilian people who they are: People that love who they are and the country they call home. Brazil is not only rich in culture but in natural resources, it’s the world’s fifth largest economy and has the third largest oil reserve in the world. The leaders of Brazil have their eyes on the future, a future that leaves most of its 220 million people out.

I, along with Eboni Taggart representing Put People First, set out on this journey from June 16th to June 27th, with Erica Williams of the Poor People’s Campaign. We were in Brazil to connect with local organizers in Bahia, show support for the democratic process in Brasilia, and attend a youth conference in Marica, in the state of Rio.

We started our journey in the city of Salvador, in the state of Bahia which has the largest population of people of African descent outside of Nigeria. Salvador was the original capital of Brazil and its African ancestry is very apparent. We met with the Bahia branch of the MST (the landless workers movement) whose work in that state helps to establish agricultural settlements in rural areas. As well as supporting local black organizers in the city of Salvador who are involved in anti-racism work and Afro-Brazilian cultural preservation. The organizers we met with in Salvador used religion and spirituality as part of the organizing practice, it was one of the strongest ways for them to connect to their community. We attended a Candomble ceremony with the organizers, which is an African-based religion primarily practiced in Bahia. They took us took to an Afro-Brazilian Catholic church which was built by slaves in the 18th century. We also met with one of the leaders of the largest black carnival troops in Brazil in their hall. The depth of history and tradition spoke to me. Our time in Bahia will always be with me.

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In the blink of an eye, we went to the capital of the country – Brasilia. The current capital was founded in 1960 to bring the capital from Rio to a more central location. It was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, a Brazilian and designer of the UN building in New York City, in a brutalist/modern style. Brasilia is in the state of Goiás. Visually and socially it’s very different from Bahia, the landscape is arid with red clay like dirt and sprawling, not like the rich green and tight vibrant corridors of Salvador. There, we went to the Presidential palace to meet with Dilma Rousseff, the President of Brazil; actor and activist Danny Glover; Dr. Elaine Glover – Danny’s wife; and a member of the national branch of the MST. During our meeting we spoke about the political climate in both Brazil and the U.S. and how they intersect. Currently there’s a coup to overthrow President Rousseff, that has her in the middle of an impeachment. Most recent reports show that the claims of corruption that lead to the impeachment are unfounded. But the desire by the wealthiest 4% of Brazil to get wealthier is what’s driving this process no matter how undemocratic it is. Rousseff also spoke about how healthcare is a human right and that Brazil has universal healthcare. Our small delegation came to show support for the democratic process. Our visit to Brasilia was short but memorable.

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Back to the coast, in a beautiful small town called Marica on the Atlantic Ocean in the state of Rio, we joined the youth in struggle conference which was apart of the Utopia festival. The overall Utopia festival was designed to bring together the poor and dispossessed from all over the globe to meet and discuss what a future would look like without poverty, racism, sexism, gender inequality, classism, and all of the other oppressions that we face. But our group participated primarily in the youth in struggle conference, where youth from four continents met in a public school in downtown Marica to speak about, debate, and learn about the challenges youth face globally. Over four days we bonded with young organizers from all over the world. We had to share tight quarters and limited amenities, but the communal format really helped us to form strong bonds with each other, even if we didn’t speak the same language. One highlight for me was participating in a mística, which is a performance that tells your story of struggle or story of self. It can be done through song, dance, poetry or other forms performance art.

After the conference on our last full day in Brazil we went to Rocinha which is the largest favela or slum in the country, in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Rocinha is not recognized by the city of Rio as a neighborhood and has no political representation. It is home to an unofficial estimate of 200,000 people. Rocinha rests on the side of a mountain and rises to the summit where the poorest people live, located in the south zone of Rio. Our guide in the favela was Xaolin who is the president of a local organization in Rocinha that fights for the rights of people in the favela. We were guest in Xaolin’s home, learning about how people in the favela live and the history of Rocinha that dates back to the 1920’s. Also we saw how reliant and self-sufficient the residents of Rocinha are. Every home and business was build by someone from the favela, creating partnerships to literary stack properties on top of one another. No one in the favela has to pay for their utilities, due in large part to the organizers in the favela like Xiaolin, who fought for these services. The city may provide the services, but the residents fight to keep them from being taken away. All of the plumbing and electrical wiring are laid and maintained by the residents, creating an amazing intricate infrastructure. Thousands of overhead wires known as “cats”  connect electricity to each property, the ingenuity of their system is incredible. We were fortunate to get to see the view from the top of Rocinha. A breathtaking sight that shows poverty at its highest level, as well as height of wealth — at the base of the mountain near the cost is one of the most affluent areas of the city. So close in space but miles apart economically.
“Once in a lifetime”, that was what I keep telling myself during this journey. In Brazil I found struggle, but more importantly I found beauty, friendship, spirituality and a true love for humanity. I will carry these lessons with me for the rest of my life and I hope to be able to share them with everyone that I know.      

by Eboni Taggart

Recently, on an especially lackluster day while I laid in the fetal position in bed and contemplated life, I received a text from a fellow PPF member, “Hey Eboni!  I hope all is well!  Would you have some time to talk later about the possibility of going to Brazil to attend an international convening for youth in social movements? Everything would be paid for through our partners.”  I’m thinking that this had to be yet another sick and twisted practical joke from the universe. It wasn’t. Two weeks later, I was at the Rio de Janeiro Airport, out of the country for the first time.  I felt like a 5 year old in the mall who’d lost her parents. It was massive, no one spoke English, and I still hadn’t received instructions about next steps from my host. I was frantic.

Roger from the Media/Communications team, and I were hosted by the Landless Worker’s Movement (MST), the largest movement organization in South America. Despite the mission presented to us, I could never had guessed what this trip had in store for me. Even as I write, I am still in awe and disbelief.

By 9 pm, I was finally with my host and the next few days felt surreal. We flew to Bahia in Salvador to meet with Landless Workers staff and others involved in movement work.  Bahia was colored with a pro-black sentiment. The people covered all the aesthetics of people in the diaspora. I could go into any space and feel like I belonged. In Philadelphia, I often have to prepare myself to overcome people’s projections about me, being a poor black single mom, as I navigate in and out of various spaces. I am often permanently injured by these projections. They are often rooted in white supremacist ideologies and carried out by blacks and whites alike, whether conscious or not. I never get a chance to heal. It is like an abusive relationship that I am bound to forever.

In fact, people would often approach me speaking Portuguese. Danny Glover’s wife, who is Brazilian, asked me if I was Brazilian (Back to that later). I was quickly reminded by their attempts at conversion of how much I missed black people back home, this surprised me considering that I’d never had a chance to realize that I had something to miss. Our histories nearly identical our journeys distinct evidenced by language, music, and culture. We have much to learn from each other but this experience definitely sparked a newfound curiosity and appreciation for the nuances and idiosyncrasies that is African American culture. After all, it is mine and I yearn to fall in love.

We toured the city and quickly developed a genuine rapport with our Brazilian comrades.  We visited three cities during our stay, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Brasilia. Most cities are relatively modern, with dilapidated old world style buildings in the mix, giving the city charm and character.  The weather was cool, though it alternated between warm and chilly constantly because it is winter there in June. Hills were steep and plentiful in many places around the country. We had a joke in the group, “Now we know how the women here got those highly coveted backsides!  Brazilian Butt Lift anyone?”  We drank too much, made inappropriate jokes and no one was offended. We danced to Samba, witnessed an Oshun ceremony and drank coffee in princess tea party sized cups, not cool!

On day three of our expedition, I learned that we would be meeting with the President of Brazil, Dilma Rouseff. We had an intimate meeting with the president that included three of her advisors, Danny Glover, goodwill Ambassador of Brazil, Danny Glover’s wife and political advisor, Roger, Erica Williams of the Poor People’s Campaign and yours truly. We were there as the American Delegation to support Brazil’s Democracy during the president’s pending impeachment.  

It was not at all even in my peripheral that I would meet the leader of Brazil up close and personal, or Danny Glover for that matter. Is it bad that I was more excited to meet Danny than the president?  I knew you’d understand 🙂  I was suddenly thrust into one of Brazil’s defining historical moments not fully sure what it meant for the fate of Democracy in Brazil, our organization or me, as an individual.

I informed her of the challenges with democracy in the US including the different ways that the most vulnerable citizens are kept from voting and our Electoral College process which limits the impact of voters. She seem astonished and made lengthy and passionate statements on how such a process could never bring about real change. I added that a threat to democracy anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere, the reason we are driven to stand in solidarity with the people of Brazil.

Four days out of our 10 day trip, we stayed at a small local school where the youth conference was being held.  It was hard to follow what was going on, despite translation equipment and to engage with non-English speaking comrades (90% of attendees). We slept on the floor, ate on the floor and had to use deplorable bathrooms. The school didn’t have Wi-Fi and I was unable to communicate with my family, like I had done the majority of the trip.

Favelas

Despite my physical and material discomfort, I learned that common people from all over the world had similar struggles from educational inequality, unemployment, poverty, street and police violence, etc. We talked a great deal to exchange strategies, create an international youth in movements manifesto, and identify ways to build an international coalition. I’m expecting to receive an email from the event organizers that sum up the conference and provide next steps.

On the last two days of the trip we met a local of Rio. He invited us into his home to get a better view of the favelas, an urban slum originally occupied by former slaves. The houses are built on top of one another, high up on the mountains. Someone asked him how the living arrangement were made possible. In other words, “How did people initiate and maintain living on top of each other.  Favelas were developed by the people, not the city, and lack proper infrastructure. Truth is, the answer should be obvious, but depending on where you live in the world, working through such an arrangement could be challenging socially, legally or just plain impossible.  

He explained that people worked together to create an agreement and helped each other to build the new house. As an incentive and thank you, the new neighbor would throw a barbeque on the day that the roof got installed.

He also told us that they hadn’t paid for electricity since the 1990s. Before then, the state produced electricity for a nominal fee until the service was privatized. The rates skyrocketed, most people couldn’t afford it and eventually stopped paying. The grid was left intact. The power company wouldn’t send their technicians out to disconnect the service in fear that their heads would get disconnected from their bodies. According to reports, Rio became one of the most dangerous cities in the world after it was taken over by street gangs.

Essentially, they are stealing electricity. Stealing is wrong, using violence to facilitate stealing is wrong but what shall we call charging vulnerable citizens predatory fees for a basic necessity for no other purpose than to become unjustly enriched?

Our governments create poverty with their failed policies and then our corporations punish us for being poor with their greed, the world over.

A 2014 theguardian.com article title “Providing Electricity to Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas” stated:

“The relationship between the population of the favelas and the power distribution company was governed by a mutual lack of trust. People risked their lives to steal energy and did not take into consideration consumption levels. For the local company, these potential customers were responsible for the high level of losses and default. The social contract was broken.  To revert this vicious circle and reconstruct a stable relationship, the first step taken by the company was to call for regulatory incentives that could make energy bills affordable. The federal government developed a regulation targeted at low income populations through which local companies had to invest 0.5% of the annual operating income into “energy efficiency programs.”

It’s easy to conclude that losing revenue has prompted the power company to create incentives to make energy affordable. Could energy have not been made affordable to begin with? We know that it could have just like we know that we could have quality education, housing, jobs, and universal healthcare.  

The social contract is broken when corporations and government fail to properly protect and serve the people that need it most. Having an adverse reaction to inequality is as natural as breathing in air, the human spirit is ever striving. This reality seems ever lost on the most powerful among us. This trip has recharged my battery. I saw light at the end of the favela, thanks to the people!

This May, we collected 500 signatures from 26 counties, requesting a public hearing before any new rate increases on Affordable Care Act plans are approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Insurance. For 2017, insurance companies have requested rate increases of up to 48% on some plans. Thank you for signing the petition and participating in the call-in day to the Insurance department.

You can look for your plan and check out what kinds of increases insurance companies are asking for here. Comments to the Insurance Department can be made by e-mailing ra-rateform@pa.gov. But we’re not satisfied with just an e-mail address to express our concerns with rising premiums, deductibles, and co-pays.Many of you have courageously stepped forward with stories of how premium increases will impact you and your family.

“As someone who relies on Obamacare, it is extremely important to me that we take the time to hear how premium increases affect people‘s lives not just bottom lines.”
                                                                                    -Rabiya, Spring Garden Township

The Insurance Department is dragging their feet on a public hearing. They meet behind closed doors with insurance companies, but they won’t let regular Pennsylvanians speak on the record about the impact of higher healthcare prices.

Yes, it’s an election year. And yes, it’s budget season. But honestly, our health is not a political football. We need transparency and accountability. So PPF is taking our campaign forward, starting with a rapid-response Twitter blast at@PAInsuranceDept to demand #PIDRateHearings, and to show that we are going to stand up for the right of every person to have a say in their own health and healthcare.

Tweet @PAInsuranceDept with the amount your healthcare premium went up this year, or to call for public hearings!

Sample Tweet: “My premium went up $_ this year! We need public hearings! #PIDratehearing @PAInsuranceDept”

Share our photo calling for hearings on Facebook (included above) and Twitter (included below)!