(WOMENSENEWS)– Waving placards proclaiming "Love it, improve it, Medicare for all," members of the National Nurses United — a union based in Oakland, California — will be showing up in 11 of the states that are holding primaries and caucuses on March 1, Super Tuesday.
The union, which has 190,000 registered nurses in all 50 states, will be urging voters to choose Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as the Democratic presidential nominee, and several members will be riding in big red "Bernie buses" that began touring the country in January.
The nurses say Sanders’ proposal to replace private health insurance coverage with a universal health care system paid for by the government will benefit patients.
"Health care is a significant issue in the campaign," said Mary C. Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, an affiliate of National Nurses United. "Twenty-nine million Americans are still uninsured despite the passage of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature domestic legislation in 2010. Millions more face daunting co-pays and deductibles that prevent them from seeking preventive care."
As a result, said Turner, an intensive care unit nurse, many patients suffer life-threatening heart attacks and other emergencies that leave them with crippling debts.
Every Republican presidential candidate has called for replacing the Affordable Care Act with a more modest system to save money. Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner, wants to return authority for health care to the states and operate a system based on free market principles.
Like Sanders, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is adamant that access to health care insurance be maintained.
An estimated 11.2 million individuals now receive health care through Medicaid, the federal government health insurance program for the poor. Another 10 million receive government subsidies to buy health insurance through the exchanges.
But instead of scrapping the present system, Clinton favors incremental changes, such as making it more difficult for pharmaceutical companies to merge, which would reduce the cost of medications.
Nurses’ Campaign Goes National
The National Nurses United, which was the principal national proponent of the single payer health proposal during Obama’s 2009 overhaul of health care, has been a boon to Sanders, especially in the run-up to Super Tuesday when the campaign goes national.
"Senator Sanders is from a small state and has received little media coverage, so voters are unfamiliar with his sponsorship of legislation to slash the high cost of prescription drugs, expand Social Security benefits and make college more affordable," Turner said. "Undecided voters are more likely to open their doors to us than they are the canvassers for other candidates because for 14 years, the Gallup poll has shown that we are the most trusted profession."
On Super Tuesday, Democratic primaries and caucuses will be held in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and the territory of American Samoa. It’s a big day for Democrats because 880 delegates will be awarded, one-third of the number needed for the nomination.
A major objective for the nurses backing Sanders is refuting arguments by other presidential hopefuls that Sanders’ plan to raise people’s federal income tax by 2.2 percent and charge employers 6.2 percent of their payroll would be insufficient to cover everyone and pay for more health services.
The nurses argue that other countries spend as much as 40 percent less per capita than the U.S. does on health care because they have eliminated private insurance bureaucracy and paperwork.
"Because we are on the frontlines of health care every day, undecided voters in swing states like Minnesota, Massachusetts and Colorado are receptive to our argument that health care for all should be a right," said Turner.
In debates and campaign stops, Sanders has often pointed out that the major sums people pay for insurance premiums will go away under a single-payer health care system. He calls these premiums a tax by another name.
"Voters also like his plan to impose a Robin Hood tax on Wall Street speculation," Turner said in a phone interview. "A 0.5 percent tax on stock market transactions would raise millions to improve health care and infrastructure and meet the challenge of climate change."
Ninety percent of the union’s members are women, which has helped Sanders attract female voters. The union endorsed him in August because he was the only candidate to score 100 percent on a questionnaire of issues important to nurses. Clinton scored 43 percent.
"Nurses recognized Sanders as one of their own as soon as he got into the race, because they, like he, believe that all people should be treated equally–especially when it comes to healthcare–regardless of race, gender or ability to pay," RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, told the Guardian Feb. 9. "In my mind, there has never been a better feminist than Bernie Sanders in a serious run for the White House, even if he’s not the female candidate."
The union’s outreach efforts may help Sanders win support in the South, which has the worst health of any region. One in five Southerners has fair or poor health, found a Feb. 10 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Sixteen percent of adults in the Middle West and Northeast ranked their health as fair or poor, as did 17 percent of adults in the West.
In addition to the highest rates of adults with diabetes and cancer, the South has the highest rates of infant mortality. Southerners are more likely to be uninsured (15 percent compared to 10 percent for the rest of the country), because only 10 of the 17 states in the South had expanded Medicaid as of January.
Thirty-one states have expanded Medicaid, according to a Jan. 31 report from the Washington-based Advisory Board Company, a research and consulting firm. Those states include Arkansas, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Vermont, which will all vote on Super Tuesday. Seventeen states have rejected expansion, including Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia while Alabama is considering expansion. Tennessee is considering an alternative plan.
In voter outreach efforts in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia the nurses have emphasized how Sanders’ Medicare for All plan would decrease these disparities.
Making Stops in Georgia
In Georgia, the Bernie Bus has visited churches, community centers, union halls, Wal-Mart parking lots and college campuses to explain how Sanders’ emphasis on ending inequality in health care, employment and criminal justice would benefit the state, which is still recovering from the 2008 recession.
"I’ve been a lifelong Republican, and for the first time I’m voting for a Democrat, Bernie Sanders," Irma Westmoreland, an RN in Augusta for 23 years, said at a Feb. 18 stop, according to a union press statement. "My daughter just graduated from the University of South Carolina with a BSN in Nursing and a $40,000 debt despite the fact that she had scholarships. I am voting for Sanders because he supports free public college education and expanding Medicare for everyone."
Other nurses described the benefits of Sanders’ plan to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, an increase of $9.85 from Georgia’s present rate. Employees covered under the Federal Labor Standards Act are subject to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 but still struggle to afford health care and other necessities.
Clinton is calling to raise the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour.
The nurses’ highlighting of Sanders’ plan to end economic disparities may help Sanders overcome Clinton’s considerable lead among non-whites who represent 40 percent of the Democrats in the 11 states.
"The reason I support Bernie Sanders is his stance on Black Lives Matter," Martese Chism, an African-American nurse in Chicago and board member of the Illinois affiliate, told the National Nurses United convention in October. "People say Bernie Sanders does not have black support: Well, I’m here to say that the black support is here for Bernie."
The Clinton campaign has criticized Sanders for claiming that he has set a new standard for politics by renouncing funding from super-PACS, independent expenditure groups that can collect unlimited amounts from wealthy individuals, corporations and unions, while benefitting from the contributions of union members to the National Nurses United for Patient Protection, a super-PAC.
In November, the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation, which wants to make politics more accountable and transparent, reported that NNU’s super-PAC had spent $569,000 supporting Sanders, most of it for printing pro-Sanders literature and online and print advertising.
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, responded that the campaign had not started, coordinated or funded a super-PAC.
The union points out that the contributions to their super-PAC come from small sums in dues of members, while those to Clinton’s super-PACs came from billionaire financiers such as George Soros, who contributed $6 million, and Hollywood moguls Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who each contributed $1 million.
As of Feb. 20, the Federal Election Commission reported that Clinton had raised $57.5 million from super-PACs, second only to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who collected $124.l million but dropped out after the South Carolina primary.