What started as a chat between Einstein anatomy lab partners on healthcare justice grew into a town hall event that filled Robbins Auditorium last week, featuring U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who gave a short talk before answering students’ many questions about healthcare policy in the United States.
A Student-led Effort
The campaign to bring the congresswomen, whose district encompasses Einstein, to campus began about the same time Rep. Ocasio-Cortez was elected in November 2018, explained second-year medical student Joseph Tharakan. “Sarah Kellner and I were lab partners in anatomy and were both passionate about issues related to healthcare equity, such as the social determinants of health. We thought that because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a strong advocate for a lot of these issues, we should just invite her and see if she would come.”
Ms. Kellner, also a second-year medical student, agreed. “We are representing clubs that think about health equity and health disparities and the solutions that we can come up with to deal with these issues as future doctors.”
She and Mr. Tharakan, along with second-year student Reise Sample, represented three Einstein groups onstage: Students for a National Health Plan, Medical Students for Choice and Reproductive Justice, and the Family & Social Medicine Interest Group. “These are the kinds of issues that brought a lot of us to medicine in the first place,” said Ms. Sample.
Einstein’s Focus on Social Justice
Mr. Tharakan said Einstein “ensures that social medicine and social determinants of health are part of the curriculum. We have tons of bioethics workshops addressing real-life cases of patients who could not get the care that they needed because of healthcare disparities.”
Said Ms. Kellner: “Being in the Bronx where there’s a large population of underinsured and uninsured patients, and going into clinic and seeing the struggles of patients trying to pay for their most basic services has really pushed us to think a lot about how we can better serve our patients. How do we help people access healthcare, and how do we convince others that this is a human right and this is very important?
“I think our classmates, even those who don’t necessarily agree on the same solutions to these issues, really care that we are having this conversation, no matter what we think politically,” she added.
Students have a responsibility “to look for solutions as members of the future healthcare community,” Mr. Tharakan said. “Even if we can’t agree on everything we have to at least have a dialogue to be able to create a way forward together.”
Added Ms. Sample, “It’s important to be participating in the public conversation about our healthcare system. We all hope to be involved not only now but throughout our careers.”
Healthcare Policy Questions
After the initial remarks, the three student representatives and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez moved to the stage for a discussion on the benefits and challenges of implementing a national health plan in the United States and how it will affect them as future physicians. They discussed “Medicare for All,” single-payer health insurance, drug pricing, the Hyde amendment (which since 1976 has banned federal funding of abortion), health disparities, and more.
The students asked her to name some of the most important health disparities and what she was doing to address them. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez said race and income greatly affect whether a person is insured, not insured, or underinsured. This often leads to patient delays in seeking care, which ultimately drives up costs. She said the students should not underestimate how they can help as future physicians.
“Using your legitimacy and your personal experience to advocate for healthcare solutions is extraordinarily powerful,” she said. “It’s one thing for a person who cannot afford his insulin prescription to say we need a better system,” the congresswoman said. “But for a physician to join them and be their advocate, not just in a hospital but on the floor of Congress is important. Most of this is convincing people that this is the real deal.”
I think our classmates, even those who don’t necessarily agree on the same solutions to these issues, really care that we are having this conversation, no matter what we think politically.
Einstein student Sarah Kellner
The town hall was also open to audience questions, and they came from physicians, researchers, and medical students on such topics as physician compensation under universal healthcare, criminal justice, addiction issues, the lack of healthy food options in the Bronx, and access to healthcare for undocumented residents.
“Politics is like quantum physics,” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez concluded. “Things change when someone pays attention. Attention is one of the most valuable things in our modern economy. The more people start to pay attention to healthcare policy—as they have been—the more we will see a radical shift in how healthcare is discussed.”
Posted on: Thursday, January 30, 2020