On May 6 I was arrested for singing at the N.C. General Assembly, an accusation my fifth grade chorus director would have believed was justified. And yet this Monday, I’ll be traveling right back to Raleigh along with hundreds of other nurses, social workers, public health experts, pharmacists, physician assistants and physicians.
You might wonder why a busy physician and his colleagues would take the time to sing in front of the appropriately colored golden doors of our state legislature. The answer is simple. When I became a physician in 1979, I swore to look out for all the parts of my patients, not just their livers and lungs. As my fellow North Carolinians are born and grow older, many factors affect their health, from the choices their parents make to the choices they make as they move into adulthood.
What is equally clear is that the government – federal, state, and local – can also have a dramatic impact on my patients’ health. Just ask the soldiers and their families exposed to toxic water at Fort Bragg about the importance of protective legislation. Or ask the estimated 1.5 million North Carolinians without health insurance. So when the governor and legislature pass laws that will make my patients unhealthy and drive up costs for all of us, staying silent is not an option for me, both as a doctor and as a human being
In just four short months, the extreme right-wing leadership of the state legislature has taken a hatchet to the health and well-being of our state and my patients. Their refusal to expand Medicaid to cover 500,000 hard-working, tax-paying North Carolinians will mean thousands of unnecessary deaths and increase health care costs for the rest of us. Their plan to raise taxes on food, medicine and doctor visits will cause real pain to working folks and retirees on fixed income. Meanwhile, higher income folks like me will see their tax bills cut in half.
Hypocrisy is astounding
But there’s more. Current legislation would deny thousands of pre-school children access to pre-K, permanently affecting their intellectual, mental and physical development. Thousands of pregnant mothers would be ruled ineligible for essential pre-natal care through Medicaid. Local ordinances restricting smoking would be overruled, increasing lung cancer risks for everyone. Health care providers would be restricted from offering teens critical and confidential information about mental health or STD treatment.
Women’s access to safe and legal reproductive services would be curtailed with restrictions on health plans covering abortions. Multiple state-supported drug and alcohol treatment programs would be eliminated. Millions would be cut from programs that help our fellow North Carolinians afford life-saving HIV medications. Meanwhile, the governor wants to privatize Medicaid, taking a nationally recognized program and bidding it out to big, profit-driven insurance companies.
The sheer hypocrisy of the current legislature is astounding to us health care providers. Many of them profess to be “pro-life” but deny almost everything that we know to be medically essential to the success and well-being of our fellow North Carolinians. As professionals who are called to protect and heal our patients, we cannot be silent.
Thus, when we stand singing in front of the golden doors of the legislature, we think of the Hippocratic Oath, or the words of the Moses Maimonides, who wrote of “the eternal providence” of God that appoints us “to watch over the life and health of our creatures.” But we also think of the wisdom of Henry David Thoreau, or Martin Luther King Jr., who famously wrote in April 1963 that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
This Monday we’ll again be there standing – and singing – because as health care providers, we know we have an obligation to protect our patients not only from harmful diseases, but from the harmful policies and toxic politics of the current leadership in our state. In the face of great danger to our patients and our state, remaining silent is not an option.
Charles van der Horst is a professor of medicine at UNC Chapel Hill. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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