Sen. Bernard Sanders released a long-awaited “Medicare for all” bill Wednesday that would give Americans a publicly funded insurance card, allowing them to see the doctor without paying anything out-of-pocket or shelling out premiums to private companies.
The Vermont independent’s bid to extend federal health coverage to those under age 65 faces long odds, though 2020 presidential hopefuls and other Democrats say they must look beyond Obamacare and cover the tens of millions of Americans who’ve been left on the sidelines or still struggle to afford care.
“Today, we begin the long and difficult struggle to end the national disgrace of the United States — our great nation — being the only major country on Earth not to guarantee health care to all of our people,” Mr. Sanders told supporters who packed into a Senate hearing room to cheer him on.
Though popular with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, the idea has no chance of becoming law under Republican control of Congress and the White House.
It would also cost trillions, forcing Mr. Sanders to explain how he plans to pay for it. The senator offered few details Wednesday, though pledged that higher taxes would be offset by zeroing out what Americans pay private insurers today.
Recent polls suggest a slim majority of Americans like the idea of a single, government-run plan, though Republicans appeared to relish the bill’s advent, saying it gives them a chance to prod vulnerable red-state Democrats over “government-run” health care ahead of the 2018 mid-terms.
“Bernie Sanders’ $32 trillion socialist health care plan will force Senate Democrats to choose between liberal activists and common sense,” said Katie Martin, a spokeswoman for National Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Democrats must come clean on whether they back Sanders‘ plan for government-run health care, or if they will stand with taxpayers against this unrealistic boondoggle.”
Democratic leaders aren’t sold on the plan, either, hoping to avoid litmus tests and could dive the party or distract from their efforts to defend and bolster Obamacare.
However, 17 Senate Democrats have signed onto the effort — more than a third of the conference — including a set of 2020 presidential hopefuls.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California said Americans would seek preventive care under the plan, heading off more expensive problems down the road, while Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey cast single-payer as a natural extension of America’s pursuit of liberty and civil rights.
Their turns at the lecturn followed doctors and patients, who described nightmarish efforts to navigate the private insurance system, and a Canadian professor who said her own country’s single-payer program polls better than ice hockey.
“You will no longer be cutting checks to private insurance companies,” Mr. Sanders told supporters who waved signs and applauded the progressive hero who took on Hillary Clinton during last year’s Democratic primary.
Industry players responded by saving Congress should focus on the actual cost of care and provide “more support for private market solutions, not less.”
“Let’s build on proven solutions that work — not theoretical, one-sized-fits-all approaches that don’t,” said David Merritt, senior vice president at America’s Health Insurance Plans, a major lobbying group for health insurers.
The single-payer push is also competing with two other health care efforts on Capitol Hill.
Earlier Wednesday, a quartet of Senate Republicans pushed a last-ditch bill that would repeal Obamacare by letting states take a block grant of federal dollars and decide what to do with it.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan crop of senators are trying to cut a deal this month to shore up the individual insurance market before open enrollment begins Nov. 1, though it is unclear if the emerging plan can win enough congressional support or President Trump’s signature.
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