Local activist seeks solutions on healthcare, homelessness, workers' issues


BENNINGTON -- Mary Gerisch, an area activist and president of the Vermont Workers' Center, has been involved in human and civil rights battles since the 1960s. On Tuesday, however, she will travel to Geneva, along with 30 other individuals from civic and social organizations around the country, to speak as part of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights' periodic hearing on the state of human rights in the United States.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee oversees the implementation of the ICCPR, which was ratified in 1992. They make sure that member countries are, in following with the treaty, keeping up with human rights standards. Areas included in the discussions are the right to vote, freedom from discrimination (in regard to race, gender, and other factors), the right to organize, freedom of expression, freedom from illegal detentions, and many more. The periodic review of the U.S., which last occurred in 2010, involved the federal government submitting a report, followed by social rights organizations submitting a report, followed by the hearing in Geneva, in which both sides present their cases. The committee will then make recommendations and expect the U.S. to have improved by the next review.

Gerisch was there at the review in 2010, when housing was declared as a human right, which has gone a long way towards battling homelessness in the U.S., according to Gerisch.

Gerisch will speak on issues including health care, the right to organize and form labor unions, the right to participate in a needs based budget, and immigration.

Gerisch's path has been a long and trying one. Growing up in Detroit during the tumultuous 1960s, including the Detroit riots in 1967, Gerisch was the daughter of a cardiologist. Her father opened one of the first free clinics in Detroit, so Gerisch was familiar with social issues, especially involving health care, from the time she was very young. She later married and became a human rights attorney.

Tragedy struck when her parents were involved in a car accident in Georgia, which left her mother a quadriplegic and her father with a serious head injury, and unable to practice medicine. As his Blue Cross insurance was through his office, which closed when he had his accident, the insurance was canceled. Learning of this, and faced with millions of dollars in medical expenses for her parents, Gerisch sued Blue Cross. Her parents' medical insurance was reinstated as a result of the lawsuit, but any injuries resulting from the accident were now considered pre-existing conditions. Her parents both needed 24-hour care, which the insurance did not cover, draining Gerisch and her husband's savings accounts in a matter of months.

The ordeal, which left Gerisch nearly destitute, gave her a realization into homelessness that she would later build upon. "When I look at someone who's homeless," said Gerisch, who suffered a head injury from an auto accident of her own in 1995, which forced her to retire, "I know that's me if I don't get my [disability] check for a month or two. I had a savings account and a steady job, and it took two months for that all to go away. It doesn't matter if you have a doctorate or you can't read, these forces can act upon anyone."

The Vermont Workers' Center, of which Gerisch is now president, was founded in 1998. Its first project was the Vermont Workers' Rights Hotline, which received calls from thousands of Vermonters weighing in on ways in which they thought their rights were being violated.

"Most of the complaints revolved around health care," said Gerisch. Over time, the center realized that some major issues that faced workers transcended the workplace, and in 2008, they launched the Healthcare is a Human Right campaign, designed to promote a universal health care system for Vermont.

"Health care really is a human right, according to the U.N. and all the treaties we've signed," said Gerisch. "For too long," says the VWC's website, "Vermonters have been suffering under a system which treats health care as a commodity, not a human right." According to Gerisch, many countries have adopted universal health care systems, which are publicly funded, and end up paying about half of what Americans currently pay to insurance companies, for more inclusive service.

The VWC began its campaign by organizing a committee in every Vermont county. The grassroots campaign got the attention of several Vermont lawmakers, many of whom had been quoted as supporting a universal health care system, but believing it was currently politically unfeasible. In 2010, the Vermont legislature established a commission, including Dr. William Hsiao, Harvard professor of economics who was an advisor in Taiwan during their transition to universal health care, to determine which a three health care reform options was the most feasible for the state. The commission eventually decided that a single-payer universal health care system was the best option, and in 2011, the legislature created Green Mountain Care, the first single-payer health care system in the United States.

The legislation faced a major hurtle when lawmakers demanded a language in the bill that would limit the universal health care to citizens.

This was unacceptable to the VWC, who wanted anyone within Vermont's borders to have access to their health care.

"You can't call this law universal, and then exclude non-citizens," said Gerisch. The VWC organized a protest, and several thousand Vermonters gathered at the state house, with Gerisch and others speaking at the event. At the overwhelming sign of dissent, the language was removed.

Implementation of universal health care has been delayed due to ongoing debate on how the program should be financed. The program has also been delayed by the passage of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as "Obamacare," which requires citizens to purchase health insurance, which goes against the goals of Green Mountain Care, which would instead provide publicly financed health care. "There's a big difference between health insurance and health care," said Gerisch, "For a lot of people in other states, the Affordable Care Act is a godsend. For us, it was a delay in getting universal health care enacted." Full implementation has now been delayed to as late as 2017.

The VWC also works in community education as well as activism. It will be hosting a public forum on health care in November. A venue has not been decided on yet.

Gerisch is also heavily involved in the Bennington Homeless Coalition.

"There are a lot of myths associated with health care, and homelessness as well," said Gerisch, "That the homeless are lazy, or criminals, or don't want to work. There are people at our shelter who are working one or two jobs and can't make ends meet." She points to her own story as evidence of that.

"Bennington has a real homeless problem," she added. "About one third of the families here in Bennington have taken advantage of [the Kitchen Cupboard, a soup kitchen]. Nobody thinks it can happen to them. Most of the people I see, they say ‘I don't understand how this happened, I used to be the one giving food to people!'" She describes homelessness as a silent problem, because people do everything they can to not let their current financial state show, because of the heavy negative social stigma that accompanies it. Gerisch believes Bennington can overcome that stigma, and grow as a community.

In homelessness, and health care, and workers' rights, Gerisch knows that there isn't just one solution that will solve everything. "There's not just one thing," she said, "It's an interdependent cycle of human needs. The only way to conquer this is by empowering people to live a life of dignity."

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB.


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