(L to r) Physician assistant Perri Morgan and Bernie Page, MD, both from Durham, joined physician assistant Donna Shelton, from Emerald Isle to show their support for expanding Medicaid. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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After taking a break during the legislative interim, protestors are back at the General Assembly and many of them had health care on their minds.

By Hyun Namkoong

On the first Monday of this year’s legislative short session, some 1,500 supporters of the Moral Monday protest movement returned to the General Assembly building to decry legislation that they say has affected health care, education and women’s reproductive rights.

Obstetrician/gynecologist Eleanor Greene of Greensboro attended the rally with a contingent of other physicians from the national group Doctors for America. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

The Moral Monday movement was born of disapproval of the Republican-dominated House and Senate during last year’s legislative session. Protesters returned this year to voice their anger at the state’s decision to not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the state’s handling of Duke Energy’s coal ash spill and abortion legislation.

Children, doctors in white coats, students and union members were among the protesters in attendance on Monday.

A coalition of doctors called Doctors for America held up large banners that read, “Speak up America. Health care is our right” and “Patients over politics.”

“I feel like I need to be here for my patients,” said Jonathon Flescher, a doctor with Wake Internal Medicine.

Doctors for America is a national movement of physicians and medical students that advocates for affordable care and equal access to quality health care.

Medicaid expansion tops demands

Prominent leaders of the Moral Monday movement took the stage to galvanize the crowd before entering the General Assembly building two by two with duct tape over their mouths, a protest of new building rules about noise.

The speakers included Charles van der Horst, a doctor from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Division of Infectious Diseases, who has been an outspoken critic of last year’s legislative priorities.

UNC Hospitals infectious disease physician Charles Van der Horst spoke to the crowd about the need to expand the Medicaid program, as allowed for under the Affordable Care Act. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

“The policies they pass in that building back there, terrible Thom Tillis and all, are harming my patients directly,” he said.

Van der Horst referred to studies that show the disparities in the risk of death based on the availability of health insurance.

“They have blood on their hands, as far as I am concerned,” he said.

“[Hospitals] were really hoping that when the ACA was passed that they would be able to have a source of coverage for the uninsured,” said Eleanor Greene, an ob-gyn from Triad Women’s Health Center in Greensboro and a part of the Doctors for America movement. “That didn’t happen.

“Small hospitals are really having difficulty in addressing the bottom line, and some of them are threatening to close or are closing.”

In April, the state chapter of the NAACP reached a deal with Vidant Health to prevent the planned closing of the Vidant Pungo District Hospital in Belhaven.

Access to abortion

Protesters frustrated with last year’s abortion legislation were also out in full force at Monday’s rally.

Senate Bill 353, which was signed into law last July, requires the state Department of Health and Human Services to tighten regulations on abortion clinics. It also permits health care providers to opt out of abortions if it’s against their beliefs and denies coverage for abortions under insurance plans with government funding, including the health plans for state workers.

Stephen Hren and Michelle Ferguson of Durham said they came to the legislature to support access to abortion. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Stephen Hren and Michelle Ferguson of Durham were at the protest holding hot-pink Planned Parenthood signs that read, “We march for women’s health.”

“I am appalled with the legislative action,” Ferguson said.

Similar displays of indignation and frustration were shown throughout the protest. Organizers galvanized the crowd with chants such as, “Fire it up. Ready to go.”

“Women’s health is my heart. I don’t see how you can separate out women’s health from health care,” Greene said.

Coal ash frustration spills over

Protesters also expressed concern about the clean-up of the February coal ash spill by Duke Energy into the Dan River. Many said they were angry at the state’s response, in particular with Gov. Pat McCrory.

“The governor’s refusal to address the spill and his ties with Duke Energy is why I am here today,” Hren said.

Concerns have been raised over the effects the coal ash particles might have on health through consumption of polluted drinking water.

McCrory has faced criticism for his handling of the spill. His relationship with Duke Energy has also come under scrutiny. He was an employee of the company for 28 years and until April 15 owned at least $10,000 in Duke Energy stock.

Cover photo: (L to R) Physician assistant Perri Morgan and Bernie Page, a doctor, both from Durham, joined physician assistant Donna Shelton, from Emerald Isle, to show their support for expanding Medicaid.

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Hyun Namkoong

Hyun graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings Global School of Public Health in the health behavior department and she worked as the NC Health News intern from Jan-Aug 2014.