Fighting for health care in America’s forgotten towns
Life expectancy in my Western Pa. town is on its way down. But there’s hope — if we fight harmful myths about poverty.
I’m from Johnstown, a town of about 20,000 people in Western Pennsylvania. We used to be a booming steel mill town. But once the mills closed, Johnstown went downhill.
If you’ve heard of my town at all, in fact, it’s probably because of our opioid problem. I’ve known a few people who’ve died, including my friend Nycki.
She was poor, like a lot of people in Johnstown. In fact, Johnstown has the highest poverty rate of any town in the state. Thirty-eight percent of all people here — and 63 percent of people under 18 — live below the official poverty line.
Nycki turned to drugs, and that led to going in and out of jail. She never got the treatment she needed. When she overdosed two years ago, Nycki left behind a four-year-old daughter. She was just 26.
Some people say young people like Nycki and me are lazy. But that’s not true. Johnstown just doesn’t have enough jobs that pay enough to live on.
I’m on disability and Medicaid. I’m grateful for the help I get, but it’s not enough to get by. Last year, out of nowhere, my food stamps got cut down to $15 a month. I’ve tried asking why and could never get a straight answer. (Now I hear the administration is trying to throw 3 million people off the program altogether.)
At the grocery store I sometimes have to put food back or add the charge to my credit card debt because I don’t have the cash. What’s going to happen when my card is maxed out and I still don’t have the cash?
I’m not the only person in this boat that’s sinking. But what’s really helped lower my anxiety is getting involved with Put People First! PA. This is a group that gives people like me the opportunity to organize to make things better. It’s become like my family.
I help coordinate our Healthcare Rights Committee in Johnstown. I often go door to door talking to people about the need for health care for all. It’s hard work, but I love the challenge of persuading people to have hope that we can improve our situation.
What makes me sad is when I talk to people who say there’s no poverty problem in Johnstown. They’ve been told that if you’re poor, it’s your own fault. You should just work harder. Or they say that immigrants are the problem.
The real problem, I believe, is that a few people are getting very rich while poor people in towns like Johnstown are just forgotten.
Last fall, Put People First! PA organized demonstrations against health care companies. One was Conemaugh hospital, owned by Duke LifePoint, in Johnstown.
Do you know how much the CEO of LifePoint made in 2017? More than $13 million. Meanwhile, people — including some of my own family members — have gotten poor care at that hospital, which has a one-star rating from Medicare.gov.
Nobody should get that rich off a health care system that isn’t even working. Life expectancy for African Americans in Johnstown is just 64.8 years, almost 15 years below the national average.
We need to make health care a right, with universal health care for all. And we need more public investment in communities like Johnstown, so that everyone has the opportunity to a secure, dignified life — not just the wealthy few at the top.
Savannah Kinsey is a Healthcare Rights Committee Coordinator for Put People First! PA in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.