Alyssa Milano and Ady Barkan (center) attend the Los Angeles Supports a Dream Act Now! protest at the office of California Senator Dianne Feinstein on Jan. 3, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Getty Images-Gabriel Olsen)
Alyssa Milano and Ady Barkan (center) attend the Los Angeles Supports a Dream Act Now! protest at the office of California Senator Dianne Feinstein on Jan. 3, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Getty Images-Gabriel Olsen)

Who is Ady Barkan, the health care activist name-checked by Elizabeth Warren?

Ady Barkan can’t speak without electronic assistance anymore. But he’s still being heard in the 2020 campaign for president.

Barkan has emerged as one of the country’s most visible progressive activists for health care since 2017, when he was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A new father given just years to live, Barkan literally threw his body into action, protesting Republican initiatives at the U.S. Capitol, crisscrossing the country and raising millions of dollars for political campaigns. By his count, he has been arrested at the Capitol seven or eight times as of March.

Barkan’s name came up after the first round of the Democratic presidential debate last night, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who supports the universal, government-run healthcare proposal known as Medicare for All, cited Barkan’s personal story as an example of the shortfalls of private insurance. Warren also said she keeps a picture of Barkan’s toddler, Carl, in her office.

“He’s dying of ALS and he has really good insurance,” Warren told MSNBC after the debate. “He has about $9,000 every month on average that the insurance company says, ‘No, we’re not doing that. We don’t care that your doctors think it’s right.’”
Barkan tweeted his thanks, but added in other tweets that candidates should have talked more about the human costs of deficiencies in the health care system.

“Thank you @EWarren for listening to me and millions of others in crisis because of our health care system,” he wrote. “But last night’s debate failed us.”
Barkan, an Israeli-American lawyer, was a longtime progressive activist before his diagnosis, inspired as a child by the book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” according to Politico magazine. He got attention a few years ago for efforts to democratize the Federal Reserve. But since late 2017, he has focused on political advocacy for access to health care. His organization, called Be A Hero, is a project of the Center for Popular Democracy, where he is a senior organizer.

He has protested President Trump’s 2017 tax cut — even confronting Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake about it on an airplane flight they shared — because he worried that it would cut funds for social services. He also gained attention for protesting the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. After Maine Sen. Susan Collins voted to confirm Kavanaugh, Barkan raised $4 million for her eventual challenger’s campaign. He’s also raising money to oppose Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley.

“We are all profoundly grateful for you, @AdyBarkan,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi tweeted after Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives in 2018. “Your passion for saving our health care and charting a new path for progressive change were an inspiration throughout the campaign.”

Now, he’s pushing Democrats as well as Republicans to focus more on the individual effects of health care policies. In a video posted last night to Twitter, he invited people to join his latest initiative, which will center people’s health care stories.

“Healthcare is too important to too many people for 30-second sound bites shouted between ten different candidates on a stage, moderated by journalists who are not pissed off enough about the reality that so many Americans are facing in the richest nation in the history of human civilization,” he said. “We need a better health care debate and we need it now. We have to do something about this.”

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.