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Nevada Organizers Hold Senator’s Feet to the Fire on Health Care

As working people who create the wealth for the 1%, we shouldn’t have to crowdfund our health care, says Autumn Zemke.

Carson City WFP demonstrates at the Carson City chamber of Commerce Luncheon where both Amodei and Heller spoke promising not to repeal. (Photo: Courtesy of Carson City WFP)

Part of the Series

Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 49th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation about current efforts to oppose the American Health Care Act (AHCA) with Autumn Zemke, a Carson City resident who has served as the co-chair of Northern Nevada Working Families Party since November 8.

Sarah Jaffe: You guys had an action this weekend at the office of Senator Dean Heller around the health care bill. Tell us about it.

Autumn Zemke: We were planning on doing a sit-in. We weren’t allowed to even enter the building except for one person at a time. Pretty amazing. The part that I found interesting is, I went in. We were a group of three. We were going to ask if we could go up together. “No, no. Only one at a time.” This is in the federal building in Reno. I just said, “Well, what if we were men, lobbyists in nice suits? Then, would you say ‘Only one of us at a time?’ What if we were lobbyists to come and speak to our senator?”

The response from security was that they couldn’t answer my question, but I was actually filming and I was told that I was rude for filming to try and get an answer about that. I just thought that was an interesting thing that I would be rude to try to get on record, “If we were lobbyists, could we come up?”

He really does limit access. He has had one town hall in six years. So, he is not very interested in what we have to say here in Nevada.

Six years, that means he is coming up for re-election very soon.

Very soon. His approval rating has really plummeted. Nevada is purplish/reddish/bluish. It is full of people who really are not partisan. I will be very surprised if he wins this election in November of 2018. I will be very shocked, especially because he has gone — this isn’t new, but it is just now that he is being watched, he will be in public at some meeting and say one thing and then within hours tell another group something else. What I always find interesting about that is that in this day of technology, how can you still think you can get away with that and that won’t be publicized?

Then, with Planned Parenthood and the repeal, he has been saying that he was against it. Between him and Governor [Brian] Sandoval…. There is a tweet coming from Governor Sandoval like, “Dean Heller and I are working to stop the repeal” basically. I can’t remember the exact words. That is an interesting thing, too, because now you have a Republican governor who is against the repeal and expanded Medicaid in Nevada.

When we were down at Heller’s office last night, one of the things that we were discussing as Nevadans is the fact that AB374 Medicaid For All — it has been dubbed SprinkleCare because of Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle, it was his bill — was still sitting on the governor’s desk and he had until midnight and if not, it would go through. He didn’t have to have his name on it, but he didn’t have to kill it either. I had real hopes for the fact that he would just let it go. Then, shortly after we had left the Senator’s office we got word that he had vetoed it. Now, we are really in this place that saving the ACA is even more important.

I supported Medicaid For All. I support a single-payer system. I personally don’t have insurance, so last night was a devastating blow for me, but just because I don’t have insurance right now doesn’t mean that I am going to say, “Well, just let it be repealed. Obamacare wasn’t good enough for me, so let’s just let 24 million people suffer. The 600,000 people on expanded Medicaid in Nevada, we don’t care about them because I personally don’t have insurance under that system.” That is not right. We really have to fight against the repeal, but we also have to talk about ideas like expanded Medicaid, like Medicare For All and what that truly would mean for this country.

Tell us more about the Medicaid For All proposal in Nevada for people who don’t know about it.

I understand that health care is complex and I am not an expert, but the way that I understood the bill would mean is that all Nevadans, all 2.9 million of us, would have been able to have the option to buy into the Medicaid system here in Nevada. For those that qualify for the rebate, the assistance with their premiums, that would still exist and pay into Medicaid.

You wouldn’t be forced, and private insurance would still exist. Medicaid would just be on the exchange so people could buy into it. For those people who still qualify for Medicaid, they would get their Medicaid. The thing about that system is the way I understand it is that doctors are only paid a percentage of each dollar. I think it is like $0.66 on each dollar for Medicaid, on average. But, the thing is that the Nevada doctors are actually paid more. I think that was a really important part of this — was that we could not have this problem, “Well, doctors wouldn’t accept it. Doctors wouldn’t get paid what they were worth” or “There would be a long wait.” None of that is actually accurate.

We have a doctor shortage whatever system you are looking at. Just family care, especially in places like Nevada, which is very rural. You have Las Vegas, which is a population center, and Reno. We are growing a little bit. But the majority of Nevada is rural. Doctors don’t exist in rural Nevada anyway.

Tell us a little bit more about what has been going on in Nevada since November, and the work that you have been doing building the organization out there.

I really want to focus on some positives right now. Nevada is an interesting state with our politics. Nevada went for Hillary Clinton and we formed Working Families thinking that Clinton would win. Then, she didn’t. So, we have this other focus that we didn’t necessarily think we were going to have.

But through that focus, we have this amazing coalition of organizations that have come together and we meet regularly. We do actions together. It is Indivisible and Northern Nevada Marches Forward, Planned Parenthood, PDA [Progressive Democrats of America]. We are all at the table together and we are holding strong. We support each other’s actions and we really push our members, and I think because we are such a strong coalition, that means something different than if we were all each doing our own thing. Especially in Northern Nevada where I used to think that there weren’t a lot of progressive people in Nevada, that there weren’t truly progressive people. Because of this, we have found each other.

One of the first things we did was that we got wind of the fact that Senator Heller and Congressman [Mark] Amodei were going to be the keynote speakers for the Carson City Chamber of Commerce. We, as a coalition, went together and I think there were close to 500 people there. We were able to turn people out and not only that, there were people who purchased tickets to be in the luncheon, people who had voted for Amodei and Heller, too. They were holding them accountable.

That was the first time where they were like, “No, we aren’t going to vote for the repeal.” Article after article, “No. No. No. We are not going to vote for this.” Then, we know what happened with Amodei. They also addressed our joint legislature. They only meet every two years. They were in session and they addressed them, we showed up to hold Amodei accountable, to hold Heller accountable.

Then, every Tuesday since January 10, people show up at the federal building in Reno where Dean Heller’s office is for our Resist Trump Tuesdays. We don’t even have to advertise it anymore. People just know to show up and individually want to hold him accountable. I think that people are really angry. Yesterday, I think the real things that we were talking about — we are not just angry. We are really scared. Health care, being able to go to the doctor, it is our lives. This is how we continue to live. It can be really discouraging, but having the coalition does help because we can stand together.

I have been talking to a lot of people who have been organizing around health care and it seems like an issue that breaks down a lot of walls for people. People find it easier to come together and talk about health care than maybe some other issues.

I also think that is an interesting point, too. I think when we really start talking about issues, in general, I think people are more closely aligned than not. When we get into cult of personality and politicians, that is where the breakdown really happens. But, on an individual level — my Republican family, if we talk about issues, we can come together more easily than if we bring up a specific name.

I also have to say, my husband works for Medicaid in Nevada. Until he started working for Medicaid, I did not realize that people died because they didn’t have health care. There was such a disconnect between that reality. I am from Nevada. My family has lived in Nevada for 150 years. I always say that because there is this narrative like “Well, these progressive people are coming into our state from California or other places.” No. I am Nevadan. I am changing my state because it is my state….

People are denied Medicaid for not being in … certain financial criteria. It doesn’t matter whether or not you have cancer or if you have diabetes or if you have any condition that is going to kill you. If you don’t fit those parameters, you find the cash or you die.

Then, there is this other assumption, “Well, if people need treatment, they just go to the emergency room.” That is not accurate. People who go to the emergency room, if you are having a heart attack, they perform life-saving measures and then you are in medical debt for the rest of your life. But, if you have a condition like diabetes or cancer or anything that needs treatment over a long period of time, you don’t live. They don’t treat you. They will stabilize you, but they are not giving you chemotherapy.

I think the American public needs that kind of realization, that kind of wake-up that I had, and I just happened to have it a little bit sooner than some people are coming to it. I think it is important for us to tell that story, “This person died.” There is this gentleman who I just came across on Twitter and he was trying to crowdfund his insulin. I think he was in Austin, Texas, and he was big in the arts scene and comic book scene. This man actually died because he couldn’t do it.

We have to hold Senator Heller accountable. “Why would you do this? Why would you take health care away from us?”

We shouldn’t be crowdfunding health care. Not in the wealthiest country…. Plus, it just doesn’t make financial sense. The reality is we have to hold Senator Heller accountable. “Why would you do this? Why would you take health care away from us?” And hold them accountable to the fact that there is no financial reason for it.

I have to add, the reality of people who are in the 1% [is that they are] there off the backs of our labor. It is not like we are trying to take something from them. They have that wealth because they have workers, they have employees, they have people that have lifted them up to this point of extreme. They got there because they have companies where they have people working for them. That is our wealth. We helped make that wealth. Asking for health care shouldn’t be that big of a deal when we create the wealth as employees, as workers.

Did you successfully get to say any of this to Dean Heller or his aide yesterday or did they just completely block you all out?

People did go up. I always bring comment sheets with me. People brought those up. It was kind of interesting because the staff lingered, like not really engaged I would say, but lingering. Like we were going to do something. Just not how you treat your constituents. You engage them. It just wasn’t a dialogue. It was interesting, the security guard had a sheet with the law of why we weren’t being allowed to be let in, because we would disrupt or block the ingress and egress. The thing is, like my co-chair Drew List said, we had no plans of disrupting in that way. We just wanted to come in as a group, as a united front and speak with our senator’s staff. That shouldn’t be a big deal. It should be a big deal, because what I said at the beginning is true. If we were a group of lobbyists, we would have been let in.

What comes next? The bill is still secret. What are you guys planning for next steps?

This week we have just a week of actions. I think there is almost something going on every day between now and next weekend. We are just going to continue our push trying to get through to Heller on the phone. A lot of us use Resistbot — I think is what it is called, where you text and it faxes your written comments, and then, continue to go in person. Then, we will see what he does.

But, even now, especially with the SprinkleCare being vetoed, we just have to continue to hold him accountable. And long term. Because if you vote to repeal our health care, there is so much going on people kind of forget. Then, there is always great spin. We have a year and a half to get out the vote, to get Heller out if he is not listening to us. To continue to hold him accountable really regardless of what happens with health care, because there are so many other things, but this is our focus right now.

I honestly think he will probably vote with his party. I really do. Statistically, he used to be a little bit more independent, but he now just votes along [the] party line. He did for all Trump’s appointees. He has just gone along. But, I was really shocked about Amodei, I really was. I was because he was so on the record. Then, long-term, we will continue to hold Heller accountable, especially as August recess comes up and he will be in the State of Nevada. The thing is, he has … yet to have a town hall in southern Nevada. He is from where I live and … owns a ranch out where my family has lived for over a hundred years.

Asking for health care shouldn’t be that big of a deal when we create the wealth as employees, as workers.

I think he needs to look his constituents in the eyes. He used to lead Heller town halls on the phone. They are just so scripted, he doesn’t even have to listen to us. We want to force him in the north to really get down to Las Vegas and have a town hall down there, too. I think he is really scared to. He is considered a hometown boy. Both him and Amodei are from Carson City, where I live. That was the home narrative spun after the first protest we did, “Well, these are our hometown boys.” Who cares, if you don’t listen to your constituents? Who cares?”

We are just going to keep pushing, though. You see people kind of getting tired, but when it comes to the issues, I think some people are getting tired of the Trump/Russia stuff and really just want to focus on this stuff, that impacts everybody’s daily individual life. Health care is that.

How can people keep up with you and with Working Families in Nevada?

We are on Facebook. We are right now Carson City Working Families Party, we’re merging into Northern Nevada. Then, on Twitter it is @CCWFP. Then, I really recommend, too, going to the Working Families Party national organization and seeing what we as a national organization have to offer.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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