Memo from the Staff

November 5, 2004

A crisis too loud to ignore

I began writing this in a hotel bathroom in San Francisco. Only there could I escape the racket of a picket line 20 floors below and hear myself think: Maybe doctors shouldn't view national health insurance as a dirty idea.

The pickets were bellhops, waiters, room cleaners, and the like. Their union had struck four hotels; 10 other hotels had locked out their union employees in response.

I had a window on this war from my room at the Renaissance Parc 55. Its workers weren't striking, but I could see picketers across the street at the Hilton. Some carried signs reading "Healthcare is a Right" while others drummed buckets, blew whistles, and chanted from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., the limits set for noise-making. A renegade drummer woke me up at 2 a.m. Earplugs courtesy of the hotel were useless.

I asked Violeta Sarmiento, a 58-year-old housekeeping supervisor, whether she could afford $273.42 a month in premiums.

"Oh, my God, no," said Sarmiento. "It's too much; we can hardly pay our mortgage now."

But shouldn't employees assume a bigger share of the healthcare tab?

"No, no, no," she said. "We're not going to give Hilton anything from our pocket. They earn billions."

Sarmiento has a point. Like other businesses, Hilton faces skyrocketing healthcare costs, but it earned $112 million in the first half of 2004.

Nationwide, millions of laid-off workers have lost insurance coverage. Millions more who've kept their jobs find it costlier. You, of course, encounter this crisis every day. If you're like the doctors I know, you respond quietly but heroically by treating that hard-pressed, uninsured patient and tearing up the bill.

But this generosity applies the proverbial Band-Aid to a systemic problem. So what's the systemic solution? "We don't have national health insurance," said Tim Miller, a waiter turned picket captain. "Shame on America."

Maybe national health insurance strikes you as socialized medicine. But our society must replace the current system with something that's fairer and more compassionate. I was heartened by the report of a surgeon who grabbed a sign and joined the hotel strikers. If anybody has the moral authority to provide leadership on this issue, it's the healing profession.

The presidential election is over, but the crisis remains. Whatever we do, we can't succumb to the temptation to stick in earplugs. Otherwise, the drumming will only get louder.