Gillibrand discusses health care, labor rights in Oakland

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) stands for a picture with supporters at a roundtable discussion on healthcare in Oakland July 11. | Janine Faust, contributing editor

Up until Thursday, the last of the 2020 presidential candidates to set foot in Pittsburgh was former Vice President Joe Biden in May, when he kicked off his 2020 campaign in Lawrenceville.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., another Democratic presidential hopeful, broke the two-month-long dry spell when she stopped in Oakland on Thursday.

At the Hilton Garden Inn on Forbes Avenue, she held a roundtable discussion with several UPMC and Allegheny Health Network employees and union organizers. The event was the first stop of Gillibrand’s “Trump Broken Promises” bus tour through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. 

Jeffrey Shook, an associate professor and the doctoral program director of Pitt School of Social Work, moderated the roundtable. He said his work has convinced him that structural issues prevent American citizens from being able to meet their health care needs, including hospital workers themselves.

“Far too many jobs in our country do not pay people enough to meet their basic needs, especially their health care needs,” he said. “Despite working in a hospital setting and having insurance, many workers are still not able to access medical care and afford prescription drugs, and many have substantial amounts of medical debt.”

Gillibrand outlined what she would do as president to ensure people could afford decent medical care, beginning with combating rising drug prices and corruption in the pharmaceutical industry. This included creating a “pharmaceutical czar” position, where an appropriate expert would lead a task force responsible for auditing pharmaceutical companies’ business practices, including watching for price gouging and violations of antitrust laws. 

She also spoke in support of penalizing drug companies that increase prices without justification, reinvesting penalty revenue into drug research at the National Institutes of Health and prosecuting companies that push addictive drugs and doses for profit. 

Gillibrand then listened to the stories of several Pittsburgh health care workers involved in unionization efforts or dealing with medical debts. Nila Peyton, an administrative assistant at UPMC Presbyterian, complained of being deep in debt due to prenatal medical fees and other costs not covered by her insurance.

“Something is wrong with the system where you can spend all day helping to provide health care to people and then not be able to stay healthy yourself or keep your family healthy because you can’t afford it,” she said. 

Alexandria Cutler, a food service worker at UPMC Presby, said she has also compiled a large amount of medical debt after hurting her back at work and having to attend physical therapy. “Bills keep coming and keep piling up and it’s affecting my credit rating. I can’t buy a car, buy a house, be a functioning adult in our society. It’s also affecting my work ethic, I can’t do as much as I’d like to,” she said. 

Gillibrand said people all over the country are facing these issues. She criticized President Donald Trump for “destabilizing” health care in the country by rescinding Affordable Care Act policies that covered fees associated with prenatal care and other preventative health care practices. 

“I do believe if we had a new president who took health care as a right, not a privilege, we could get more coverage,” she said.

She expressed support for the UPMC workers’ ongoing effort to unionize, stating she wants to get rid of right-to-work laws and introduce more policies supporting collective bargaining rights. “Too many people … feel that their employers do not care about them, that you are replaceable, that you aren’t valued, and we need to value work in this country,” she said.

Gillibrand also said she would push legislation that ensures American jobs are not sent overseas. “The real challenge we have is a president who just delivered a tax cut to the wealthiest individuals in America and the most successful companies in America,” she said. “[Trump] said ‘I’m going to bring back those jobs, you’re going to get so tired of winning.’ Really? Are we tired of winning? No, because he has not done the things he promised to do.”

In a discussion with press after the roundtable, Gillibrand was asked if there was a risk in being “too negative” in criticizing Trump. 

“No,” she said immediately. “President Trump has lied to the American people and the American people have a right to know he has broken his promises.”

Gillibrand went on to say that unlike any other candidates running for president, she is capable of bringing people of many different viewpoints together, making her the best person to defeat Trump in the 2020 election.

“It’s not even about him at the end of the day, actually,” she said. “It’s about solving the problems that these families are facing.”

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