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Little guy, big cause

Harry Baltzer, activist advocate for elders, takes on America's healthcare system

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From class-action lawsuits to Internet protest sites, consumer activism in America has largely become a child of litigation and technology.

But with the quick stepping vitality of a man half his age, 70-year-old Harry Baltzer - former Peace Corp engineer, eccentric, and self-dubbed "social misfit" - shows that good old fashioned get-out-and-shout protest is far from dead.

It's late morning in the tiny town of Huron, a rural farming community set against the vast and unvarying plains of eastern South Dakota, and Mr. Baltzer has begun his routine. He paces in front of a drugstore, carrying a large sign that reads: "Pharmaceutical companies are great rip-off artists." Nearby, several similar signs lay strapped to a cart hitched to Baltzer's rusting bicycle (his only mode of transportation).

Passersby seem to either gawk or ignore. But Baltzer is accustomed to both stares and physical stress.

Case in point: This summer, this son of a South Dakota "dirt farmer" strapped his signs to a small cart, hopped on his other bike - a 10-speed - and pulled his signs 600 sweltering miles on a kind of protest tour to nearby towns.

Over a coffee at the local McDonald's, Baltzer lays out his grievances, which are surprisingly vague. He has no single beef with a particular drug company, he says, and no singular event that has set him on this path. It's enough that he, his friends, and his relatives have been affected by outrageous drug prices.

Vehement and articulate, Baltzer hesitantly shares the eccentricity of his lifestyle while never straying far from a soapbox.

A single man, he relies on little more than Social Security for income. He lives in a mobile home during the summer and rides out the winter in a small apartment.

Baltzer says he doesn't spend money on food. Instead, he "dumpster dives" behind the local supermarket, sharing the better unopened goods he finds with poor families. He also sings for local nursing home residents.

Enough about himself, he's soon back to issues.

"There are other things that are more critical, I think, than drug companies - things like campaign finance, world hunger, and defense spending," he says. "I wish I could do something more, but I hope this makes some difference."


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