Labor, faith and community groups target giant insurer; six arrested in protest


More than 100 people demonstrated and six were arrested at the headquarters of the nation’s largest private insurance company, UnitedHealth Group. Labor, faith and community organizations working together in the Health Care for America Now coalition organized Monday’s protest, the third local action in two weeks against the practices of the giant health insurer.

Six of the demonstrators were arrested after they sat down to block the doors of the UnitedHealth Group offices and refused to leave.

“We’re here today to stop UnitedHealth Group from continuing its business practice of denying health coverage and insurance claims as the primary means of turning a profit,” said Julie Schnell, president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and one of those arrested.

“Enough is enough. The status quo is failing most Americans. The time has come for Congress to ensure we have the health care we can afford and that means the choice of a public health insurance option.”

demonstration at UnitedHealth Groupthe Rev. Grant Stevensen
People attending the action carried signs naming friends, family, or communities for whom “Business As Usual” in health care isn’t working.The Rev. Grant Stevensen, president of ISAIAH, a coalition of 100 congregations active in social justice issues: “When the laws of our land protect what is immoral, the place for the moral person is in jail.”

The demonstration was one of about 40 planned in cities around the nation by Health Care for America Now to show support for health care reform, including a public insurance option.

“We’re standing as a nation at a crossroads,” said the Rev. Grant Stevensen, president of ISAIAH, a coalition of 100 congregations in the Twin Cities. “If the insurance companies win, the people who you care about – the people who you want to have health care – will lose.”

As part of the demonstration at UnitedHealth Group, people carried signs naming friends, family, or communities for whom “Business As Usual” in health care isn’t working. Over several solemn minutes, everyone took a turn speaking about the person or people they had named on their sign.

Gayle McMahon, Cambridge, an organizer for the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, carried a sign with the name of community activist Marcia Kruger, who had no health insurance and died when a too-late visit to the doctor found cancer had spread throughout her body.

Janet Aslani, St. Paul, a kindergarten teacher and member of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, carried a sign saying “Business As Usual” wasn’t working for “My 20-year old kids.” One of her 20-something adult children, she said, had no health insurance and the other could only afford a policy with a $4,000 deductible.

“I’ve been doing a lot of letter writing and calling Congressmen and Senators,” she said. “This is the first issue I’ve gotten super-involved in,” she reported. “I’ll feel guilty if I don’t do more.”

sitdown at UnitedHealth Group
Six members of the group sat down to block the doors of the UnitedHealth Group offices and risk arrest. Above, left to right: Julie Schnell, president, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota; Anna Brelje, political director, Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation; Mary Rosenthal, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and former UnitedHealth Group employee; Sean Anderson, organizer with SEIU Local 26; Diane Brennan, small business owner, grandmother and ISAIAH leader; and Pamela Twiss, program and organizing director, TakeAction Minnesota. Below, police lead Brelje to a car after she is arrested.
Anna Brejle getting arrested at UnitedHealth Group

Police called to the UnitedHealth offices asked company security personnel to give several warnings to the six protesters who had linked arms and sat down to block the building’s entrance. “How many times did you tell them?” one officer asked. “Tell them two more times.”

Singing “We Shall Overcome,” other protesters walked to the public sidewalk, where they continued singing until the police cars containing the six arrestees left for the Hennepin County jail.

demonstrators outside UnitedHealth Group
Protesters march on the sidewalk near UnitedHealth, singing “We Shall Overcome.”

UnitedHealth Group, through its subsidiary Ingenix, is the sole owner and funder of the Lewin Group, which produces polling and research widely cited by the congressional opponents of President Obama who are working to stop health care reform.

Minnesota members of Health Care for America Now held a candlelight vigil Oct. 1 outside the $6.6 million Wayzata home of UnitedHealth CEO Stephen Hemsley, who earned $13.2 million in compensation in 2007. The coalition also brought several hundred protesters to the UnitedHealth offices Sept. 22 as part of a nationwide day of action: “Big Insurance: Sick of It.”

Article and photos by Steve Share, who edits the Labor Review, the official publication of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation.

For more information

View video of Monday’s demonstration at the Uptake website