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King On Health Care

Hartford Event Highlights The Civil Rights Leader's Lesser-Known Cause

January 16, 2007
By HILARY WALDMAN, Courant Staff Writer

If the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, it's almost certain he'd be talking about health care.

"Dr. King has often been quoted as saying, `Of all forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane,'" Dr. Ray Hammond told 900 people gathered in Hartford Monday to honor King's life.

Hammond, a Harvard-educated surgeon-turned-AME Zion-minister, was the guest speaker at the House of Restoration Church in the city's impoverished North End, where worshippers spent more time looking forward than they did reflecting on King's legacy.

"Were he here," Hammond said, "I am sure that Dr. King would agree that the most pressing matter is not commemorating his life, nor remembering the civil rights movement, but rather asking ourselves: Where do we go from here?"

About 400,000 people in Connecticut have no health insurance. Many of them are black or Latino.

With a super-majority of Democrats just elected to the state legislature and universal health insurance plans floating from diverse corners - including union halls, HMO executive suites and even the governor's mansion - the answer seemed pretty obvious Monday. For human rights advocates, universal access to health care is the next frontier.

The message resonated loudly for Yanira Martinez, who took advantage of a free flu shot offered by public health nurses in the church lobby. Nurses also checked blood pressure and distributed information about other free health screenings during a mini health fair that ran simultaneously with the church service.

Martinez, 29, has experienced daily bouts of vomiting and stomach pain since she had stomach-reduction surgery. She was so sick that in August she left a marketing job that offered health insurance. She now earns about $30,000 a year as an administrator for a nonprofit agency that offers no insurance.

Last week, Martinez spent three days in Hartford Hospital because her stomach pain became so severe she could no longer stand up. Without insurance and with $4,000 in unpaid bills for past medical care, Martinez has no idea how she'll pay her hospital bill.

She said there's not much money left at the end of the month once she pays her student loan, rent, car payment and car insurance. But like others in her situation, she'll send a few dollars to the hospital to keep the bill collectors at bay.

"Even if there isn't anything left, you make something out of nothing," Martinez said.

Maria Olivera, also at the church Monday, owns Genesis Unisex Hair Salon on Franklin Avenue in Hartford. After paying her business expenses, she takes home about $9,000 a year. Needless to say, she does not have health insurance.

Olivera, 41, has not had a physical in about eight years, but she has sought care from private physicians to control acid reflux that makes her uncomfortable and interferes with her ability to eat. Three years ago, Olivera filed for bankruptcy because she could not pay the doctors' bills, which she said totaled several thousand dollars.

Unable to pay for prescription medicines, Olivera finds relief from samples of the acid-reflux drug Nexium that her doctors give to her for free. When the sample packs run out, she simply stops taking the medicine.

"My friends, Connecticut's broken health care system is shocking and inhumane," Juan Figueroa, president of the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut, told worshippers inside the plush Pentecostal sanctuary as people such as Olivera sought free care in the lobby.

Figueroa spoke of the health care plans buzzing around the halls of government. In the end, he said, universal health care is in the hands of the people who need it most.

"Those plans are not going to carry the day," Figueroa said of the myriad proposals. "It's going to be up to us, demanding that something be done." The people, Figueroa told the crowd, must demand a health care system "that leaves no one out."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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