[ Editor's Note: This was a painful story to edit. Vance's behavior in this instance is beyond disgraceful -- it makes this New Yorker wince to read of his callous disregard for the suffering of a young woman who dares to challenge the insurance companies while suffering from a brain tumor and lupus. As the New York poet Tom Verlaine said, "...how I wish I could change my vote..." ]
NEW YORK — Kate Barnhart, a healthcare activist fighting both a brain tumor and lupus, now has to fight NYC also. The Manhattan District Attorney seems to believe that she belongs in prison. A year ago Barnhart was arrested for participating in a peaceful sit-in at Aetna along with 16 others who were protesting the health insurer’s denial of care to extremely sick people. During the course of the past year charges against those arrested were dropped. In July Judge Shawn Dya Simpson dismissed the trespassing and related charges against Barnhart. Weeks later D. A. Cy Vance’s office threatened to rearrest Barnhart and file new charges against her. This enraged healthcare and LGBT activists. Barnhart is the Executive Director of New Alternatives, a program for homeless LGBT youth. Hundreds of phone calls were made to Vance’s office as well as a petition with thousands of signatures was sent there. The D.A.’s office backed off slightly. They didn’t rearrest her but did refile charges against her. State Senator Tom Duane, knowing Barnhart’s work as an advocate on behalf of people with HIV/AIDS as well as marginalized youth, contacted Vance’s office to object to the refiling of charges.
One of the reasons she joined the sit-in was because her friend, Mark Milano, was denied chemotherapy by Aetna. Barnhart, herself suffering with a brain tumor, was dropped by her own insurer after having paid $900 a month for the insurance. Milano, still battling cancer, believes that the spotlight put on Aetna by the sit-in played a crucial role in getting Aetna to pay for the treatment they were denying him up until that point. He said, “There’s no doubt that what Kate did saved my life. Aetna didn’t care whether I got my chemo or not until the sit-in took place. There’s nothing criminal about what Kate did. The crime is insurance companies withholding care. Why doesn’t the D.A. go after them?”
Donald Grove who was also arrested at the Aetna sit-in commented, “This is pure harassment. Along with all the care she gives to others, she spoke up when the healthcare system was failing her and her loved ones. Why should that make her the target of such harsh treatment by the D.A.?”
On the morning of September 15th about 80 of Barnhart’s supporters from both the healthcare and LGBT community rallied outside the city court building at 100 Centre St. in Lower Manhattan where she was to appear. There was a general sense of outrage. They were wearing masks of Barnhart’s face as a symbol of solidarity and carrying signs that read, “Only Guilty of Needing Healthcare.” They chanted, “Patients, not profits. Medicare for All”, “Kate Barnhart is under attack. What do we do? Act-up. Fight back”, and “Today it’s Kate. Tomorrow who? What would you do if they came for you?”.
The police tried to get the protestors to cross the street but one in the group told the police, in no uncertain terms, that they had the right to picket on any street in the city and they would absolutely not cross the street. The NYPD didn’t pursue the issue.
Responding to public pressure Erin Duggin, Vance’s Communications Director, came to the rally and spoke to the press. When asked by Katie Robbins of Healthcare-NOW! why Barnhart was treated more harshly than other peaceful protestors Duggin replied, “You could argue that we treated the other arrestees more fairly.”
“The D.A’s office just admitted Kate has been treated ‘less fairly’ by saying that others were treated ‘more fairly’. When voters put Cy Vance in that office, I don’t think they were voting for a ‘sometimes fair, and sometimes less fair’ system” said Laurie Wen, a member of the New York City chapter of Healthcare-NOW!, which organized the rally.
When Barnhart entered the courthouse some of the protestors accompanied her. She was given a date to return in mid-November. When she returns her supporters will return with her. Why Kate Barnhart has been singled out for this treatment remains a mystery. Are they trying to make an example of her to others who might peacefully protest? We just don’t know yet. But the one thing that is for sure, the numbers of her supporters will continue to grow and they will be there to support her whenever she returns to court.