kidwagon.jpgWhat does it say about our country that our elected leaders have an easier time agreeing to fund a misguided war than funding healthcare for our children? This was the theme of the rally we held at the Senate Swamp yesterday, concluding three hectic and exhilarating days of SEIU’s Member Political Action Conference (MPAC). Over 1,400 SEIU members took three days away from their busy lives and demanding work schedules to come talk with their elected officials and 2008 presidential candidates about their priorities.

And these are working people who know a thing or two about priorities.

Most of them have faced some pretty tough choices in their lives. Some have had to choose between paying the gas bill and putting food on the table. Some have had to choose between seeing their kids in the evenings or on the weekends, because the two full-time jobs they have to work to make ends meet won’t allow them to do both. How do you prioritize that?

So you see, when these workers see politicians continuing to fund a war that costs $10 billion and thousands of human lives each month, they lose patience. When they see them doing so while nine million children’s access to health care through the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) hangs in the balance, they get mad.

Hundreds of the workers who came to Washington this week are frontline healthcare providers. They know that the next president will have the opportunity to fix our broken healthcare system, and they are ready to help make it happen. On Monday, five Democratic presidential candidates came to meet with and address the workers.

Senator Dodd (D-Conn.) spoke about his role in the struggle to pass the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act, and promised to expand the Act to guarantee paid family and medical leave if he wins the White House. Governor Richardson (D-N.M.) talked about the need to understand healthcare as a human right, not a privilege. Senator Clinton outlined her American Health Choices Plan, which she had launched just hours earlier in Iowa with SEIU nurses. Senator Obama (D-Ill.) recalled what it meant to him to watch his mother spend her last days of life worrying about who would pay the medical bills she was accumulating, and assured the members in attendance that he would pass universal healthcare by the end of his first term. Senator Edwards (D-N.C.) vowed to issue an order on his first day in the White House cutting off health coverage for the president, Congress and all political appointees in July 2009 if a universal health care plan has not been passed by then.

These healthcare workers they addressed know well the difference that politics makes in their lives and the lives of their patients. Our nurses have seen the incidence of infection from accidental needle sticks drop dramatically since they worked to pass safe needle legislation in 2000. They have also seen the tragic effects of a system that leaves 47 million people without access to affordable healthcare—patients dying from cancer diagnosed in its most advanced stages because they couldn’t afford the necessary check-ups and screenings earlier.

In the richest country on earth, there’s simply no excuse for the tragedy that has become a daily part of our national health narrative. In 2008 and beyond, SEIU members will continue to hold our elected officials accountable for the priorities they set. And when the people in Washington still don’t seem to get what it means to fight for their priorities, we’ll be there to remind them.

Mary Kay Henry serves as an Executive Vice President of the Service Employees International Union, the nation’s largest healthcare union. In her capacity as the head of the union’s Health Systems Division, Mary Kay works with the union’s one million healthcare providers to advocate for better patient care and working conditions, and a more rational and humane health care system.