Occupy decries medical debt

Danny Lugassy, an E.R. doctor and member of Healthcare for the 99%, addressed the crowd.  Photo by Jefferson Siegel
Danny Lugassy, an E.R. doctor and member of Healthcare for the 99%, addressed the crowd. Photo by Jefferson Siegel

BY JEFFERSON SIEGEL  |  Last Saturday, a year after holding their first Occupy Town Square event in Washington Square Park, Occupy Wall Street activists returned to the park to offer free medical services, education and testing during an all-day health fair. The day’s theme was the burdensome costs of healthcare for millions either uninsured or unable to afford even basic medical care.

“We’re here to highlight the crisis of medical debt in this country,” explained Elizabeth Oram, a nurse practicing in Chelsea. She and dozens of her medical colleagues participated in the daylong event, called Life or Debt.

White-coated and scrub-wearing professionals gathered in the park and in nearby Judson Memorial Church, offering medical education and advice, and repeating their mantra, “Healthcare is a human right.”

Saturday’s Occupy Health Fair kicked off a week of nationwide actions highlighting the healthcare crisis of spiraling costs, rising personal bankruptcies and hospital closings.

Members of Rolling Jubilee, part of the O.W.S. offshoot Strike Debt, announced they had purchased and abolished $1 million in medical debt owed by Kentucky and Indiana residents.

“Medical debt is used as a weapon of class warfare, so it became clearer that we had to turn to each other,” an organizer explained. The average debt owed in those two states was $900. More than 1,000 people benefited from this gift, the group’s second healthcare debt buyout.

A 2011 Harvard University study found that more than 60 percent of bankruptcies nationwide are due to medical expenses. According to the American Journal of Medicine, Massachusetts’s bankruptcy filings increased to more than half of the state’s total bankruptcies in 2008 and 2009, when Romneycare was in effect.

In midafternoon, as the familiar “Occupy Wall Street” banner was unfurled, almost 100 gathered behind it and marched out of Washington Square Park, first for a brief rally in Union Square, then on to the site of the former St. Vincent’s Hospital, at 12th St. and Seventh Ave. An oft-repeated refrain at the rally was that 10 hospitals have closed in the city since 2006.

Standing on Seventh Ave., the speakers denounced the hospital’s closing.

“It had a charitable mission to serve the uninsured and the underinsured,” one speaker said, noting, “Hospitals like this run into debt, incur financial losses and are forced to close.”

The loss of St. Vincent’s, currently undergoing conversion into market-rate housing, has left the Lower West Side without a hospital.

“For 161 years this hospital served working-class New York people,” said District Leader Paul Newell, a member of the Coalition for a New Village Hospital. “This hospital was closed by fraud, greed and debt.”

Yetta Kurland, an attorney and candidate for Christine Quinn’s City Council seat, raised her voice over the whine of construction machinery as work proceeded on the building’s conversion over the weekend.

“In just two weeks, St. Vincent’s was closed to give way to luxury condominiums,” Kurland said. “Our community needs a hospital. We want our hospital back. We can put four floors [of a new hospital] in the O’Toole Building,” she suggested of the 1963 six-story building across the avenue from the former main hospital campus.

(North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System is converting O’Toole into a 24/7, freestanding emergency room and healthcare center, a $110 million project. “We’re still scheduled to open in early 2014,” said Terry Lynam, an N.S.L.I.J. spokesperson. “Work at the site is ongoing.”)

At Saturday’s event, Danny Lugassy, an E.R. physician and member of Healthcare for the 99%, slammed the healthcare system, saying its current state wasn’t what inspired him to enter medicine. Lugassy backs a nationwide single-payer healthcare system similar to that provided to seniors under Medicare.

After the speeches and a musical performance, an organizer suggested everyone return to the park for more medical education, as well as acupuncture and yoga.

Since being evicted from Zuccotti Park in November 2011, Occupy activists have focused on aiding other causes, most recently conceiving Occupy Sandy, helping people devastated by Superstorm Sandy.