Alan Pean + Medical Organizing Right Now

I first heard about the shooting of Alan Pean by off-duty policemen at St. Joseph Medical Center in Houston twenty minutes after I got my first anatomy exam of medical school back.  This news sounded like so much of the news I’ve gotten for the past year: an unarmed black person was shot by police officers. This time in a hospital. As usual, the trained, armed officer feared for his life. I was still studying, still investigating every paper-thin layer of my cadaver, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what exactly I was studying for. Medicine’s political context is there regardless of whether I choose to engage it, and tragedies like this one make it clear that we need to engage these issues together, with input and leadership from the people affected.

“Gaps” are probably one of our favorite metaphors in healthcare. Gaps in coverage can be filled. If we keep doing good work, the gaps will be filled until there are no more gaps. It suggests a well-designed bridge with a few mistakes in it, the kind that a few experts can fix with localized, single-issue efforts. The problem with this is that it treats Alan Pean as an aberration, a random mistake, and therefore not a moment to take action or to change. The most recent engagement of the American Medical Association with it’s “Violence Prevention” advocacy topic was a letter to a Senator from 2014, which only dues-paying doctors and medical students may read. Its most recent and publicly available advocacy update makes no mention of gun violence, let alone the epidemic of police brutality disproportionately affecting Black Americans, or the Black Lives Matter movement. The Texas Medical Association’s site (“Physicians Caring for Texans”) makes no mention of any of these issues either. Physicians from Mt. Sinai Hospital made a powerful statement decrying the “outrage” of Pean’s shooting. They gathered nearly 3,000 signatures, but the Medical Society of the State of New York and the New York County Medical Society also seem to either lack the infrastructure for reacting, or consider these issues beyond the scope of their work. Physicians for a National Health Program has been the only national organization of medical activists to engage this issue, taking cues from the leadership of their student division, SNaHP, in amplifying the message behind the WhiteCoats4BlackLives action.

Efforts are being made to use public health discourse as a space for engaging the issues the Black Lives Matter movement has shined a light on (make time for Dr. Mary T. Bassett’s article in the New England Journal of Medicine), but still, the predominant story is about “gaps” in coverage. So when uninsured people die, or when the disciplining and punishing arms of the state show up to work alongside us as our colleagues, we can safely say that “we’re working on it,” that Alan Pean’s suffering is a hiccup in a system which is reflective and self-aware.

I think many people in healthcare are indeed reflective, and want to make it their job to address these kinds of issues. I admire these people sincerely. These relationships will make sure I become not just a caring provider, but a reflective person. They will help me think critically about what our “good work” means when healthcare is married to systems which enact violence: the police, the military and militarism, prisons, and for-profit insurance companies. We need to actively re-position ourselves in order to deal with these issues, but we barely even have space to talk about them.

We need better vehicles for having these conversations and taking action. Alan Pean was shot in the chest by colleagues of those charged with his care. That isn’t a gap. That’s a crisis. When we talk about disparity or the “social determinants of health,” we’re not just talking about “gaps,” we’re talking about politics, and we’re talking about violence. The shooting of a black man in a hospital is not a random accident. It took place in a healthcare context marked by its close ties to systems which actively make us unsafe and unhealthy. The deplorable healthcare provided within our system of mass incarceration, the immense power and influence of insurance companies and lobbies which make profit by denying us life-saving care, and hospitals which collaborate with a police system unable to serve or protect the most vulnerable – these are all part and parcel of healthcare as we know it.

There are few major platforms for talking about Alan Pean and the healthcare system’s other victims, or for engaging with healthcare’s many deep contradictions. We lack space for listening (ask a primary care provider), and taking action together is practically unheard of. Who should we be listening to, what are our interests, and who should we be acting with? We need to invest in spaces for figuring this out, spaces whose membership is not restricted based on class, race, gender identity, citizenship, or education. We need to get in those spaces, and listen. These are the spaces that passed Act 48 in Vermont. They are the only kinds of spaces that can fundamentally change the way we relate to each other, change the way we take care of each other, and change the structures which have convinced us that we are isolated and powerless.

Karim Sariahmed is a medical student and a member of Put People First PA, and has also worked with Healthcare-NOW!

Twitter: @sariahmed

Together We Will Do This by Richard Burrill


Together We Will Do This by Richard Burrill


Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” – Bob Dylan


Two years ago I attended a forum sponsored by a group called Healthcare4All at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. When I left that meeting, I was convinced that single-payer healthcare* was the way to go. I had just heard doctors, nurses and an economist speak of how beneficial it would be for our nation to change to this kind of system, and to individuals’ financial situations. Last year over 60% of bankruptcies in the United States were caused by medical expenses. This is an issue that affects so many people, and yet it can be difficult to imagine change.


I began to speak to others about this, but was somewhat discouraged that most of them couldn’t imagine such a thing, since they had always paid so much for insurance and medical care. I found it really challenging to find a way to work with others in advancing this idea.


Early last year, I was invited to attend a meeting in York, PA, by a group concerning healthcare. It turned out that the group was called Put People First! PA, and the gentleman speaking, Eliel Acosta, said that PPF-PA advocated healthcare for all and wanted to establish a local chapter in York County. Here were people that were established a couple of years before and espoused my beliefs, so I decided to join them.


Today, we have a small group in our community organization, but it’s a beginning with good possibilities of growth. It is exciting that PPF-PA is going around this state of over 13 million people in an effort to build more local communities. As we grow, we will educate more residents, gain confidence and power to accomplish our goals. Together we will do this.


*A system of providing healthcare that is universal, free at the point of service and paid for through equitable tax contributions; that eliminates profiteering by insurance corporations, and controls medical costs through economies of scale.


Activism is my rent for living on the planet.” – Alice Walker


PPF-PA Statewide Healthcare Survey – Take it Today!

Put People First! PA invites you to participate in building a grassroots movement for health and dignity in our state by taking our healthcare survey and sharing it with your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and other community members. Over the next two months, our Healthcare is a Human Right campaign will engage 400 people across PA, from every region and from a diversity of backgrounds in exploring our experiences with the healthcare system. We have already collected 100 surveys in person from door-knocking and tabling, and we launch our online survey today! Take the survey here. Take the survey in Spanish here.


This survey was designed by Put People First! Pennsylvania, a member-led organization of Pennsylvania residents who are struggling to meet basic needs like healthcare, jobs, housing, food, education, transportation, and a healthy environment. Our Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign is dedicated to making sure that everyone in Pennsylvania can get the care they need. The purpose of our survey is to deepen our understanding about your lived experiences with healthcare and dental care, both in the past year and over the past 10 years. The survey is an important tool to ensure that our campaign aligns with what the residents of our state need, and with it comes an invitation to you to get involved. The survey should take about 10 minutes of your time or less to complete. If you would like to share your healthcare story, learn more about our campaign, or find out how you can get involved, you can get in touch with us here. Any information you provide will be completely separate from your survey so that all your survey responses remain anonymous.


Through ongoing engagement with our neighbors and communities via free health screening clinics, human rights hearings, fundraising for people in healthcare crisis, direct action and legislative strategies we are building a people’s movement for health and dignity throughout our state. Your experiences and your voice matter to us.


More information on the survey: Our survey has been designed to meet rigorous standards with members of Put People First! PA Organizing Committees in Central and Southeast PA under the advisement of PPF members Jamie Longazel, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Dayton, and Ben Palmquist of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.  Results will be shared with the public via a variety of channels including one or more of the following: a report on the findings, info-graphics, digital stories of respondents, release events and community conversations.

Team of PPF Members volunteer and administer the Healthcare Survey at the Mission of Mercy Dental Clinic in Harrisburg, PA
Team of PPF Members volunteer and administer the Healthcare Survey at the Mission of Mercy Dental Clinic in Harrisburg, PA

Statement of Support for the Vermont Workers Center

Put People First! PA Stands with the Vermont Workers Center

Put People First! PA stands with the Vermont Workers Center in this critical time.  Right before Christmas, Vermont Governor Shumlin backtracked on his commitment to follow through on Act 48, a state law passed in 2011 requiring the state of Vermont to provide health care as a public good to all residents by 2017.
The Vermont Workers Center’s Healthcare is a Human Right campaign, launched in 2008 and victorious in passing Act 48 in 2011, is the foundation on which a statewide movement built to scale. The campaign offers a real solution to meet one of our most basic needs, and elevates expectations of our political system – to meet human needs equitably and put people before profit.
The campaign built solidarity between working families who are citizens and undocumented communities, using the guiding principle of universality combined with political development of leaders to ensure a spirit of “unite and resist” as opposed to “divide and conquer”. When the legislature tried to exclude the undocumented from Act 48, VWC members rejected this false choice designed to crush the movement and defeated the measure. Act 48 passed in 2011 as the first truly universal state health care bill in the US. Continue reading Statement of Support for the Vermont Workers Center