Seattle Votes for a Right to Health Care

Measure No. 1, as it appeared on the ballot:

Advisory ballot measure No. 1 concerns the right to health care.

If approved, the measure would advise the mayor and the city council that every person in the US should have an equal right to quality health care, and that Congress should implement that right.  The measure would advise the city to take steps to secure that right, including: requesting legislation, supporting education and advocacy, publishing a report on local health care access, and convening an expert panel to advise the City and private employers on improving insurance coverage for Seattle residents.

Should this advisory measure be approved?



On election day 2005, Seattle’s voters resoundingly approved an advisory measure on the city ballot for an American right to health care 1.  The voters approved Ballot Measure No. 1 by 69% Yes to 31% No.  The election victory capped a two-year effort by volunteer activists from two small community organizations in Seattle: the Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans (PSARA) and Health Care For All-Washington (HCFA-WA).

We were delighted with the outcome of the campaign.  There were some on our side who were afraid we might lose, but most of us were confident we’d at least win.  When we got a super-majority, everybody just said, “Awesome!”

Two years earlier, PSARA’s president Will Parry and I were talking one day about what the group’s Health Care Committee might be able to accomplish.  He had recently appointed me to be chair of the committee, and I had an Idea I wanted to run by him.

I said that I would like to mount a petition campaign in Seattle to ask our City Council to place an item on the city ballot that would give voters the chance to say that “Health Care Is a Right.”  I told Will that I believed that the main element lacking in the health care reform movement was the participation of everyday people, and he agreed.  We both thought that there were lots of great experts advocating for a single-payer insurance system, and good bills being offered in Congress, but little involvement of ordinary people to support these high-level efforts.  A petition for “Health Care Is a Right” could bring in lots of people we would meet in public on the basis of something they can easily understand and support.  I said that I wanted to avoid asking people to agree to a complicated health insurance system.  Once a majority of people in America agree that “Health Care Is a Right” and express it firmly to Congress, the experts’ job will be much easier.  Then, we can come up with a thoughtful way of making health care a human right that corresponds to our political reality and our traditions here in the United States.

A week later, Will phoned me and said, “Brian, I think you’re onto something here.  Let’s run with it and see where it takes us.”

I began to get that “Be Careful What You Ask for . . . You Just Might Get It” feeling.  Will Parry is the respected 85-year-old president of the PSARA.  He is about as experienced a community leader as one is apt to find anywhere.  He enjoys extensive ties to labor, religious, and community organizations in Seattle.  He is not the kind of fellow you want to embarrass with empty talk about organizing mass movements.

“Okay Will,” I said with as much confidence as I could muster, “I’ll be down to the office tomorrow and we can write the language for the petition.”

We knew that the wording we would be asking people to sign onto would determine everything for us.  Recently, I had become fascinated with the ideas of a young congressman from Illinois, Jesse Jackson Jr., the son of the Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr.  Jesse Jr’s recent book, A More Perfect Union, contains a call for a new Bill of Rights for Americans, including a right to equal high-quality health care.

Starting with Jesse Jr’s language, we wrote the petition wording: “Every person in the United States should have the right to health care of equal high quality.  The congress should immediately enact legislation to implement this right.”

We took the petition to a great variety of public places in Seattle, including food stores, farmers’ markets, street festivals, Seattle’s Gay Pride parade, political demonstrations, and events at institutions like the Labor Temple.  Supporters of the two main supporting organizations received copies through the PSARA’s monthly publication, The Advocate, and the HCFA-WA newsletter. We received many completed petitions from folks who we mailed them to, after they had passed them among family members and in their neighborhoods.  Altogether, over the two years, we collected 11,500 signatures, which we presented to the City Council.

When someone was approached in public and asked to sign our petition, usually she would take the board and begin to read the wording.  Almost invariably, when she came to the word “right,” she would nod her head, take the pen, and sign.  It was uncanny.  People responded to the words “right to health care” like it was something they knew in their hearts was good.  Often, a person’s eyes would actually light up in agreement.  “I agree with that,” they would often say.  People smiled while they signed and thanked us for our good work.  It was fun.

Of course, all of this is counter to what is portrayed in the media and by many of our national leaders.  Everybody is supposed to be crazy for free enterprise in America today.  If the Congress has to make sure that everybody has a right to quality health care, what does that say about the insurance industry?  Maybe it’s not working to the benefit of the great majority of Americans.  Maybe we need to use the Federal Government to fix this problem, regardless of what the big insurance companies say.  I think that is what 69% of Seattle’s voters meant when they voted to send a message to the other Washington for a right to health care.

The Seattle City Council, and especially its health committee chair, Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, deserve great credit for their role in placing the “Right to Health Care” on the city ballot.  There was a good deal of criticism of the council from the print media after Measure No. 1 was put on.  The Seattle Times, our main daily, attacked Measure No. 1 and the City Council with a feature editorial.  Our two “hip” community papers, The Stranger and The Seattle Weekly, both advocated a “no” vote on a “Right to Health Care.” The plucky Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote a nice editorial in favor of “sending a message” with a “yes” on the health care measure.

After the huge ballot victory, it is apparent to us that Americans want to help change the way health care is distributed in the US.  People want everybody to be covered.  We are glad that we avoided presenting people with a complex system to support.  A “Right to Health Care” is both simple and strong.  It gets the message across.  Now, we would like to see more US cities take up Seattle’s call.  Imagine what it would be like in Congress if 30 cities followed our town’s example.  Now, that’s something I’d love to see!

Brian King is a long-time friend of Monthly Review.