Neon-colored Post-It Notes cover the walls of the United Church on the Green to represent the casualties of the war in Iraq. Their goal: to raise the question of how wisely American tax money is being spent.

This somber backdrop played host to Saturday’s forum “Health Care: Basic Human Right or Privilege?” — a two-hour debate attended by an audience of about 80 New Haven residents. UNITE HERE union president John Wilhelm ’67 and Harvard associate professor of medicine Stephanie Woolhandler initiated the discussion with keynote addresses, which were followed by a community panel.

Members interviewed had diverse views ranging from practical concerns to calls for action on the current health-care situation.

In the first keynote speech, John Wilhelm ’67 presented a broad overview of the various facets of America’s health care crisis, emphasizing the practical realities of high-cost coverage from his perspective as a union leader. Wilhelm said modern union negotiations are driven by the availability of affordable health care.

But the ethical dimensions of the problem did not escape Wilhelm’s attention.

“A mother who works hard everyday and does what the society asks her to do can’t get coverage for her kids,” he said. “There’s nothing more heartbreaking and nothing more immoral than that.”

As a Yale alumnus, Wilhelm also offered his views on college education and the University’s relationship with its unions. He said the “staggering debt” with which college students graduate dictates their decisions for the rest of their lives and is amplified by the colossal costs of individual health care.

Particularly with respect to schools like Yale, Wilhelm said even though the University’s current health-care coverage for workers is sufficient for union members, Yale has embarked on an admirable effort to improve it.

As a practicing physician and co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program, Woolhandler drew from her experiences in the hospital and focused on the consequences of a private, for-profit health care industry. She said caring for patients is by nature a complex process, but paying for it should be simple.

“The only reason we think it’s so complex is that there is an 800-pound elephant in the room — the private insurance company — and until we address it, it won’t work itself out,” Woolhandler said.

During her speech, Woolhandler invoked the phrase “single-payer system” several times, to which the audience responded with a resounding round of applause. The statistic with the most impact on the audience stated that switching over to a nonprofit, national system would save $300 billion annually.

She said these savings would be enough to provide insurance for the uninsured, increase coverage for the undercovered and fund retraining initiatives for laid-off employees of the once-private health-care industry.

The commotion in the audience reached a maximum when the panel members gave their input. Melissa Bailey ’04, managing editor of the New Haven Independent, said a single-payer system would not address social issues.

“There is a vast racial disparity with access to care,” she said. “African-Americans are three times more likely to die of diabetes here; how would you address this?”

Woolhandler said universal health care would only ensure equal financial access. This concession incited panel member Crystal Emery, a documentary filmmaker who suffers from muscular dystrophy, to point out the futility of such an effort if it did not solve problems within a social context.

“Right now, it saddens me,” Emery said. “I live the word ‘disparity’ everyday: I’m a woman, I’m in this wheelchair and I’m black. Quality of health care and racism is a big issue in America. Am I going to be offered the same cutting-edge technology, the same compassion by a nurse or doctor [as whites]?”

Another major issue was the divide between rich and poor. Wilhelm said the wealthy should not treat the health care crisis as an isolated phenomenon and react only when a tangible effect impacts their own lives.

“The increasing impossibility of going to the ER will not be able to distinguish between the rich and the poor,” he said. “Drug-resistant disease will not be able to distinguish between the rich and the poor.”

At the forum’s conclusion, several individuals encouraged advocacy for a reformed, single-payer system, denounced passive support and invoked the name of presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. David Firestone, a New Haven resident, said the discussion — though contentious at times — was productive as a whole.

“I think we bounced around quite a bit, but it’s important we initiate the process this way,” Firestone said.