WASHINGTON -- With a televised health care summit approaching Thursday, members of Congress prepare to share their bipartisan debate with viewers across the country. In the movement for reform, however, a group of activists decided to take a more active approach, hitting the pavement and marching 135 miles for change.
After a week-long journey from Philadelphia., they completed the final stretch of their journey Wednesday afternoon, arriving in Washington with a clear message: reform the health care system, and soon. They were greeted by hundreds of supporters at Union Station, proceeding to Capitol Hill for a health care rally with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. and other members of Congress.
“We have a meeting tomorrow, but after that meeting you can either join us or get out of the way!” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., promoting health care reform at the rally. His statement was followed by cheers from the crowd to “Get it done!”
The march, called “Melanie’s March,” was inspired by a health care reform advocate named Melanie Shouse who died on Jan. 30 from breast cancer. Her insurance company denied her critical treatment. A Missouri resident, Shouse met President Barack Obama on the campaign trail, and she actively pushed for health care reform during her illness.
“[Melanie] was fighting … because she understood that there were others coming behind her who were going to find themselves in the same situation, and she didn’t want somebody else to go through the same thing,” said Obama after she passed away. “How can I say to her, ‘We’re giving up now?’”
The marchers, a core group of about eight people, said they hoped to share Melanie’s message with members of Congress.
“The ultimate goal is the passing of health care reform in the next couple of weeks or months,” said Marc Stier, a state director of Health Care for America Now, and an organizer of the march. “We’re trying to jumpstart the movement again, getting more engaged to keep the message on Congress.”
Their voices were heard clearly by politicians at the Capitol Hill rally.
“Health reform is not about political people fighting with each other,” said Reid, who spoke alongside, Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Arlen Specter, D-Pa. and Robert Casey, D-Pa. “It’s about people fighting for their lives.”
Melanie’s March began February 17 with a rally in Philadelphia. During the next week, marchers continued through Delaware and Maryland before arriving in Washington.
The activists held more than 15 rallies, vigils and meet-ups throughout the trek, encouraging people to come share their own motivations for health care reform. When the marchers stopped at a diner for breakfast Tuesday morning, one supporter gave them carnations to carry, so touched by the effort that she broke into tears. The red carnations, held by hundreds of supporters, symbolized people who have lost their lives without health care.
“Everywhere we go, people come out and tell us stories about how they don’t have insurance, or how they have insurance but don’t get the care they need,” said Stier, who estimated that about 1,500 supporters met them along the way. “There have been a lot of sad touching moments.”
Many of the supporters meeting the walkers at Union Station drove in buses from Pennsylvania, and some came all the way from Georgia.
Their arrival falls during a week of intense health care debate. On Monday Obama released an 11-page plan for reform—his first personal proposal since the debate began.
“I think this march is really timely,” said Christiane Grisler, a registered nurse from Philadelphia who joined the walk on its final day. “This march is just one little thing to bring attention to the issue, and we trust it will culminate tomorrow and move forward, so we are very hopeful.”
The president’s proposal is similar to the bill passed by the Senate on Christmas Eve, but it also makes several concessions to members of the House. It will serve as a starting point for negotiations at the summit Thursday, though some Republicans say it does not account for their views.
“The proposal is troubling to me because it doesn’t seem like the president has listened to really reasoned objections from Republicans,” said Matt Patterson, a policy analyst at the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank in Washington.
For the marchers and activists at the rally, quick, bold action is desirable.
“[Congress] should finish reform soon,” said Stier. “We want them to pass the bill so we don’t have to [march] again.”
But he added that he’s not giving up. He plans to participate in another Washington area protest in March. “We won’t be done until the bill is done.”