What would a Just Transition in healthcare look like?

Almost eight years ago, the Vermont Workers’ Center launched the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign, which powered Vermont’s move towards creating a equitable, universal healthcare system. While the current Vermont governor, Peter Shumlin, who was elected on the promise of delivering a single-payer healthcare system, announced in December that he was abandoning that goal, the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign was never just about winning policy change. It is about winning recognition that the right to healthcare, and really, the right to health, is a fundamental human right that needs to be supported and promoted in all parts of our communities.

Health is about more than just the absence of illness. Indeed, when we use terms like “healthy communities,” “healthy schools” or “healthy relationships,” we mean communities, schools and relationships whose members are not just free of ailments, but are respected, supported, and encouraged to fully develop to their potential as whole human beings.

As Dr. James S. Gordon, the director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, pointed out twenty years ago in Manifesto for a New Medicine, a sort of bible for the wise use of alternative therapies, the “biomedicine” developed in Western Europe in the 18th, 19th and 20th century has been fantastically successful at curing and preventing a wide range of maladies that have caused an immense amount of suffering and death throughout human history. However, it has been much less successful in dealing with the chronic suffering that afflicts many of us – suffering that Dr. Gordon and other practitioners of “holistic” medicine have had success in treating with an approach that emphasizes understanding patients as whole and unique individuals, respecting patients as active partners in their own healing, investigating the contribution of social environments to physical suffering, and incorporating elements of the world’s other healing traditions, such as traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurveda.

One thing that is common to most of the world’s healing traditions – but often missing or under-emphasized in the Western biomedical tradition – is the understanding of health as a state of balance, not only within our body but between our body, mind and spirit and the larger social, natural and spiritual world.

We know from studies – and many of us from our own experience – that “stress” is a major contributor to poor health. But we rarely – especially in discussions of the healthcare system – name the ways in which the stress that is making us unhealthy comes from being exploited at work, poisoned by pollution in our neighborhoods, and subjected to discrimination and the threat or reality of violence on account of our race, gender, age or ability status. Even more rarely do we articulate what a society that tried to make us healthy in all aspects of our lives would look like.

Gordon’s book suggests numerous ways that health care providers and patients can address what he refers to as a “healing crisis” in our society – everything from attention to diet and regular exercise to self-care practices like mindfulness and yoga to group care. However, he is also clear that in order to create what he calls “the new medicine,” we as a society have to collectively get ahold of how healthcare is financed – specifically, with a single-payer system.

There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dedicated healthcare providers – both traditional and “alternative” – in Vermont who provide wonderful primary care and, when necessary, heal us with the most advanced medical procedures. There are public health workers and athletic associations who help us eat well, take care of ourselves and be active. There are farmers and farm workers, cooperatives and local food retailers, chefs and restaurant workers who are building a local food system that is changing how we eat and relate to the land. And there are advocates who work hard to make our workplaces and communities safer and healthier.

However, unless we are organized into a coherent and united social movement to transform our healthcare system, and our society at large, we will continue to suffer, as insurance companies profit from denying us care, corporations and the billionaire class  profit by making some of us work harder for less while laying off others, and racism and sexism continue to tar our communities and social relationships with discrimination and violence.

The Vermont People’s Convention and Just Transition Assembly provides an opportunity for all of us who are concerned about the health of our loved ones, our communities, our state and country and world, to come together to imagine and share solutions that can heal our whole selves. And start to build the strategy and political power to make those solutions a reality.

Image by Steve Snodgrass, some rights reserved.

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