Hundreds of health care reform rallies took place across the country last Tuesday, in a co-ordinated National Day of Action. I attended such an event held at the world headquarters of Aetna in Hartford Connecticut. Judging by the police presence assembled at the entrance of the grand promenade leading up to the front doors, it seemed that the third largest insurance company in the country had endeavored to harden its perimeter should civil disobedience rear its ugly head.
The Aetna building is a city-block-long brick edifice, reportedly the largest Georgian style structure in the world. It is set back, by my estimate, three hundred feet or more from the street on manicured lawns. Old growth trees, surrounded by deep beds of pachysandra, provide shade. Directly across the street is Hartford's towering St. Joseph's Cathedral.
In the canyon created by the two enormous structures, one a temple of faith the other a temple of profit, a crowd of 150 citizens gathered to let their voices be heard in favor of the 'Public Option'. Instead of pitchforks and scythes, the townsfolk carried signs with sharp pointed messages: AETNA DENIALS MAKE US SICK, HEALTH CARE FOR PEOPLE NOT PROFITS. One sign, appealing directly to Aetna's Chief Executive Officer, Ron Williams read, LAST YEAR YOU MADE $24,300,112 CAN"T YOU LOWER MY DEDUCTIBLE ?
Guerilla theater, featuring Art Perry from the local Property Service Workers Union, 32BJ dressed up in his Sunday best, a sign pinned to his back read BIG INSURANCE CEO, giant Monopoly money was stuffed into his suit pockets. One by one, members of the crowd would come up to the microphone to relate a health insurance horror story. At the end of each harrowing tale, the Big Insurance CEO would wave his wads of filthy lucre about and bellow "CLAIM DENIED! CLAIM DENIED! CLAIM DENIED!"
At 4:30 I wandered away looking for the odd Aetna employee who might comment on the rally ... no one would would talk to me with the exception of a security guard with a walkie-talkie who wanted my name. I was in the middle of spelling it out slowly for him.
S as in socialist, U as in union, Z as in Zubretsky ( as in Joe Zubretsky the CFO of Aetna ) ... when his boss came out and demanded my name and the purpose of my visit in the 'special voice' that implied all 'intel' would be forwarded directly to INTERPOL and would, of course, be included in my permanent record. I was given the number of a media relations contact.
I hiked back around to the front of the building, stopping once to remove my high heels, which in hind sight might not have been the best shoe choice for the event. The minute I stepped onto the grass for a little relief, a bicycle mounted guard was dispatched to once more request my name and to shoo me back onto the sidewalk. As I turned the corner the mounted police horse trailer drove slowly by.
Back at the rally, a 'barnburner' speech was in progress, given by Juan Figueroa, Hartford's health care reform hero. ( see Sleepy Little Connecticut: The Tip of the Health Care Reform Spear? Huffpost July 23,2009.) A few men in suits came out of their offices and stood on the front steps to observe the curious, distant affair that had re-rooted the bus service for the day and brought out the most senior law enforcement working the afternoon shift.
Three representatives, a minister, a doctor and a woman who had been denied coverage, were permitted to approach the Sanctum Sanctorum carrying a pledge for CEO Williams to sign. In the most cinematic moment of the day, a man descended the staircase and met the pledge bearers half way up the walk. The wildly cheering crowd assumed Williams himself had left his seat upon Mt. Aetna to commune with the commoners. We later learned the pledge was handed over to the head of Aetna Security and that Mr. Williams was, in fact, out of town.
The crowd dispersed without incident.