In the wake of legislative and executive promises to undo the Obama administration’s health care reform, Yale medical students have found their own way to fight against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act — through grassroots advocacy.
On Jan. 12, the U.S. Senate voted in favor of a budget blueprint that will allow Republicans to begin dismantling the ACA, and the House approved the same measure the following day. One week later, just hours after taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, President Donald Trump signed an executive order calling for the prompt repeal of the health care law.
Since the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, a group of Yale medical students known as the Yale Healthcare Coalition has been preparing for these types of administrative changes by helping to build the #ProtectOurPatients campaign, a national effort that opposes the repeal of the ACA and instead advocates for bipartisan efforts to improve the law.
According to Matt Meizlish MED ’20 GRD ’20, while these recent legislative and executive actions underscore the urgency of the #ProtectOurPatients campaign, they do not change the movement’s strategy of putting up a fight at the national level.
“[These actions] just motivate us to keep working hard, to expand the voices that are involved with this campaign and really highlight people in the states that these senators represent,” Meizlish said. “Nothing that happened changes the central issue, which is whether [the Republicans] have 52 votes for repeal through reconciliation when the vote actually comes to the full Senate.”
The YHC was formed shortly after the medical students attended a health care break-out session at a campus-wide, post-election discussion held at the Yale Law School on Nov. 14. In the two months since then, the YHC has written a “Do No Harm” petition, calling on Congress to put the interests of patients before partisan beliefs.
The YHC decided to write the petition after inviting law professor Abbe Gluck ’96 LAW ’00, director of the Yale Law School’s Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy, to speak about the state of American healthcare. In response to a question about what medical students could do in response to threats to the ACA, Gluck suggested they write a petition and encouraged the students to make their voices heard.
“Like many other members of the Yale community — but not what you often see among typical med students at other schools — our med students are very interested in the broader world, public policy and social justice in health care,” Gluck said.
Since its release on Dec. 20, the petition has gathered over 4,700 signatures from future health care professionals nationwide. Four YHC representatives also traveled to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 9 to join dozens of other future health care professionals for a #ProtectOurPatients “Day of Action” event that included delivering the petition to the offices of all 100 U.S. senators.
In writing the petition, the team tackled the question of how to be inclusive of different medical professions and backgrounds while maintaining authenticity — “harnessing the power of the white coat” in a productive yet inclusive way, said Talia Robledo-Gil MED ’18, another YHC member. Karri Weisenthal MED ’18 added that the group framed the campaign around “do no harm” and the idea that health care is a fundamental human right, two concepts that YHC hoped would generate wide support.
The petition signees came from all 50 states and over 140 health-related professional schools.
“That’s what made this petition unique,” said Eamon Duffy MED ’18 SOM ’18, a member of YHC,. “The number of people [who signed it] is great, but the fact that there’s a student in every town, every state and every school says a lot about how the next generation of students feel about the Affordable Care Act and health care in general.”
The YHC also published an op-ed on the front page of the Huffington Post on Jan. 12. The op-ed put pressure on Republican congressmen to make a decision on the ACA that is in the best interest of their constituents rather than solely falling along party lines.
The core YHC members, who have been involved with advocacy efforts in the past, are part of a growing national movement of medical students and other future health care professionals who are standing up for the ACA.
“Physicians historically have not been on the progressive side over battles of health care reform, so we hope our generation will change that,” Meizlish said. “We see ourselves as apolitical, but that doesn’t mean we sit on the sidelines. We think advocacy is an important part of taking care of our patients — it defines our generation of medical students.”
Dean of the Yale School of Medicine Robert Alpern praised the students for being “altruistic and idealistic” saying that these qualities show they care about their patients.
In organizing #ProtectOurPatients, the YHC had to confront the challenge of organizing rapidly given the short post-election turnaround. The holiday season also hindered their progress, restricting the YHC members and their counterparts at other schools to organizing via emails, conference calls and social media, YHC member Priscilla Wang MED ’17 said.
The students had hoped to make an impact by early January, before Trump’s inauguration. Duffy praised the medical student community for successfully mobilizing in time to present their arguments to incoming senators at the D.C. Day of Action, a medical student organizing feat which Duffy considers unprecedented.
Meizlish also noted that it was difficult for the YHC members to fully dedicate themselves to the campaign, given their other responsibilities as medical students, but they found a way to prioritize #ProtectOurPatients because of the movement’s urgency.
Going forward, the YHC will join national phone-banking efforts to advocate against Rep. Tom Price’s, R-G.A., confirmation as secretary of health and human services, according to Wang. Wang said she and her peers have “serious reservations” about Price’s political views and potential appointment, starting with his opposition of the ACA.
She added that the YHC also looks forward to participating in another “Day of Action” on Jan. 30. This event, which will be led by medical schools in New York City, will focus on encouraging hospitals and medical school administrations to formally come out against the ACA’s repeal, an action that will strengthen the collective voice of the medical community’s movement, Wang said. Parallel events will be held at Yale and other medical schools across the country.
Clarification, Jan. 26: This article was updated to reflect that the New York City “Day of Action” event is just one of several similar events that will be held on Jan. 30.