By ANN MONTAGUE
On Feb. 3, doctors, health-care workers, unions and anti-austerity activists hit the streets in the pouring rain to demand an end to the decades-long budget cuts to the National Health Service (NHS). They also demanded money to raise salaries for workers and to completely reverse the privatization schemes planned by the Tories, the current ruling party.
The activist organizations, People’s Assembly and Health Campaigns Together, worked to organize unions, health workers, and Labour Party activists in a strong united-front coalition based on a list of demands to save the NHS from privatization. They have specific demands: End the spending freeze and cap on NHS pay; halt the imposition of “new models of care” pending full public scrutiny; reinstate the NHS as a public service—publicly accountable, publicly owned, and publicly funded.
The 60,000 London marchers carried signs: “More Staff, More Funds, More Beds” and “Saving Lives Costs Money, Saving Money Costs Lives.” One marcher, Tamsyn Bacchus, told The Guardian that she was afraid there were plans to change the NHS into a U.S.-style user-pays health service. “It is so important that when you are ill, when your child is running a fever, when you need the hospital or a doctor, you can get them without worrying about having to pay for it.”
Marxist historian Paul Le Blanc was in London and attended the march. He reported that the most visible forces at the march were the unions, particularly the transport workers, communications workers and health-care workers. Also, local Labour Party and Young Labour groups took part.
Le Blanc said that the speakers he heard were “quite militant, clear, class-conscious, persuasive—sometimes quite moving.” Some speakers spoke of escalating street actions and not wanting to wait for the next election. In addition to the mass march in London, 54 other events took place across Britain, including actions in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
Le Blanc told Socialist Action that the U.S. also needs health care as a right, “without insurance companies and other profiteers getting in the way. That is what the working-class majority won in Britain right after World War II, and now the right wing is trying to defund it and gut it and sell it off to private business.”
Just prior to the London march, Professor Stephen Hawking and leading doctors won a full judicial review to determine the lawfulness of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s proposals to introduce Accountable Care Organizations (ACO) into the NHS. Hunt was forced to table a plan that would have allowed commercial companies to run health and social services across a region of the country.
Hawking has consistently claimed that health policy under the Tories was heading toward a “U.S.-style insurance system run by private companies.” The NHS doctors represented by the public sector union UNITE were concerned that “without the judicial review it would be pushed through Parliament with no vote and no scrutiny.”
Trump attacks NHS
U.S. President Trump took the opportunity of the mass demonstration to attack the National Health Service. He claimed that it shows that “The Democrats are pushing for Universal Health care while thousands of people are marching in the UK because the universal system is going broke and not working.”
Trump received a swift reply from everyone from the Tories to Labour. Health Secretary Hunt tweeted, “I may disagree with some of the claims of the march, but not ONE of them wants to live in a system where 28 million people have no cover. NHS may have challenges, but I am proud to be in a country where all get care no matter the size of their bank balance.”
James Ball of The Guardian decided that people in the United States need to be schooled on the NHS. “The first thing Americans should know about the NHS is that it is free at the point of use to anyone who needs it. You do not have to fill out much paperwork, and you get no bills, whether you go to a family doctor, or go to hospital. No one in the UK goes bankrupt through medical costs, no one needs to delay treatment until they can afford it, and virtually no one is uninsured. Nurses and Doctors are the most trusted professions in the country.”
According to data collected by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the NHS spends half of what the U.S. does on medical care, with much better outcomes.
U.S. single-payer campaigns
In the United States, the discussion and organizing around single-payer health care is disparate, with no central demands, and often uses the tactic of lobbying the Democratic and Republican parties in separate states for a variety of different pieces of legislation.
The only concrete single-payer plan put forward is contained in a congressional bill called Medicare For All, which envisions partial government-financed health care for all U.S. citizens along the lines of the current Medicare provisions for people over 65. The bill was proposed in the Senate by Senator Bernie Sanders, and other prominent liberal senators have spoken publicly in support. But no nationally coordinated united-front mobilizations to support the measure have been projected to date. And it should be noted that current Medicare contains large gaps in funding for various services—often requiring seniors to pay huge amounts of money out of pocket.
Moreover, it is doubtful that the two corporate parties will pass a bill that eliminates health insurance companies. Two Democratic Party senators have a competing proposal for what they call “Medicare X,” which would provide government health coverage as only one option while keeping private insurance offerings intact.
A movement to take the profit out of the U.S. health-care system can only succeed if it is built around a clear demand, is rooted in the working-class organizations, and is independent of the corporate parties. It is an illusion that we can succeed by sitting in politicians’ offices and merely “telling them our stories.” We need to build a powerful movement demanding the health care we all deserve.
Photos: Health Campaigns Together