Building a Constituency for Medicare for All in Rhode Island
Providence DSA's Medicare for All working group has been working, for the past nine months, to build a sizable and sustainable constituency for Medicare for All in Rhode Island.

Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of RI, expresses his longtime support for the Medicare for All.

Providence DSA's Medicare for All working group has been working, for the past nine months, to build a sizable and sustainable constituency for Medicare for All in Rhode Island. Experience has shown us that legislators will not seriously consider passing universal health insurance policy unless and until they feel organized and concerted grassroots pressure. To build an organized working class movement capable of doing that, we are establishing connections with unions, faith groups, and community organizations through a series of education sessions that directly engage with their constituencies, answer their questions, and build an ad hoc consensus position. 

This year our advocacy campaign got off to an early start, with almost 200 Rhode Islanders signing a petition urging Governor Dan McKee not to make any cuts to Medicaid spending. Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, he didn’t get the message. He withheld $80 million in state monies to various programs that were even endorsed by his very own Executive Office of Health and Human Services. In response, we have been organizing several community events in the greater Providence area to raise awareness of Medicare for All and the soon-to-be-introduced bill, entitled the Rhode Island Comprehensive Healthcare Plan (RICHIP). 

We began by assembling a list of individuals and organizations that might be open to hosting a Medicare for All event. One of those contacts was W. Nicholas Knisely, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. Over the course of several Zoom meetings in December and January, DSA worked with ministers and lay leaders at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, an affluent parish on the East Side of Providence, to organize “A Community Discussion on Medicare for All” on February 6. The event, which featured addresses by Bishop Knisely and RI State Representative (and DSA member) David Morales, drew a turn-out of seventy-five people (between remote and in-person attendance) and was covered by the progressive online media outlet Uprise RI. A small team of DSA phone bank volunteers followed up with some sixty audience members, resulting in three new members of the chapter, a number of signatures on our M4A testimony, and promising new organizational connections.

Our goals with the St. Martin’s event, as well as with future events planned with community organizations, faith groups, and unions, are to get signatures on a public testimony about statewide single payer (adapted from New York's similar testimony program), recruit new members to the campaign and chapter, and make working connections with other like-minded organizations in the state. In this regard, we have been working to partner with Teamsters Local 251 by regularly turning out working group members to the picket line of striking workers. The local is run by members of the TDU (Teamsters for a Democratic Union), and we see the potential for collaboration on this campaign. We also recently held a smaller community discussion with the Olneyville Neighborhood Association, a community group in a highly-diverse working-class neighborhood. 

This is our overall strategy for the foreseeable future -- to continue to build connections with grassroots organizations, hold education events, and deepen our connections with the working-class community. Forty-five percent of Rhode Islanders are under-insured, meaning they pay for health insurance but cannot afford to use it. They would benefit greatly from Medicare for All, but either don't know what it is, don't believe it's achievable, or don't know how they can help achieve it.

We also hope to leverage Medicare for All as a way to engage members of the working-class, who might not currently see themselves as effective political actors. The Medicare for All campaign has also created a variety of leadership roles that several new members of the chapter have eagerly stepped in to fill. There are currently two co-chair roles filled by veteran members of Providence DSA, as well as four working group coordinators, all of whom have joined in the last year, some specifically because of our work.

Realistically speaking, it is improbable that Medicare for All will be achieved this year, next year, or even the year after. It is a policy battle fraught with unique challenges — even though these challenges are usually exaggerated. (Little Rhode Island has more residents today than Saskatchewan did in 1962, when it first launched the single-payer healthcare system that was later expanded to all of Canada).

But we are also convinced that Medicare for All is both achievable and a moral imperative. It is also, by the measure of our chapter, the best opportunity to build a coherent Left movement in the United States. Medicare for All is clear and understandable (everyone knows what Medicare is), it is broadly felt (it has the potential to radically improve the lives of millions of people), and was the hallmark policy of the Bernie agenda which did so much to energize Left orgs like our own. If an organization like the DSA has growth potential, we believe it will be through such universally relevant policies like Medicare for All.