Health Democracy

Community insurance co-ops offer access, and so much more.

Millions of Americans without health insurance can't wait two years, five, 10 or 20 years for Congress to enact universal health coverage. And they needn't. Several communities have started their own nonprofit health systems. Members of the Ithaca Health Alliance, for example, join for just $100 per year, and can get reimbursement grants or loans for the costs (without deductible) of such everyday emergencies as broken bones, ambulance rides, emergency stitches, burns, certain minor surgeries, and some dental.

All grants and all denials of grant requests are listed on the Alliance website, in order to keep the system transparent.

Today, about 1,000 people are members. As more join, the menu of medical grants increases. Members own a free clinic and receive discounts at over 100 Ithaca-area healers and healthful businesses like organic farmers and bike shops. The Alliance also offers access for low-income families to fresh foods and nutritional education. Members elect their board of directors, and anyone in New York State may join.

Keith Haring offers his trademark murals to the Woodhull Medical Center as part of a pilot project to lift patients' spirits through art.
Courtesy of Woodhull Medical Center.
Co-op health systems like Ithaca's make sense in any city since they help reduce costs to taxpayers, and everyone's health is protected when public health is improved. They also strengthen the campaign for universal coverage:
: : They provide immediate benefits while organizing for universal coverage among the millions of uninsured.
: : The nonprofit health infrastructure demonstrates that good quality medical care can be provided at far lower cost when liberated from profits, bureaucracy, and excessive CEO compensation. These systems will be ready to receive federal money when universal coverage begins.
: : They organize citizens to defend universal coverage, once enacted, from inevitable attacks.

One hundred years ago, “fraternal benefit societies” like Moose, Elks, and Odd Fellows built nonprofit medical centers, orphanages, sanatoria, and old folks' homes, and paid most of their members' medical and burial costs. They paid widows. Their medical plans were gradually legislated to death by corporate lobbyists.

Today's co-ops can be much more. They can promote the public foundations of health: clean food; clean water; clean air; and creative, relaxing lives. A national network of community initiatives could confront the contaminants that cause disease, promote holistic therapies, set high standards of integrity, and liberate Americans from HMOs. They can become a powerful force that heals the nation.

Paul Glover is author of “Health Democracy,” founder of the Ithaca Health Alliance , and Ithaca HOURS local currency. For more information see He can be reached at 215/805-8330, .
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