When Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced his “Medicare for all” legislation last Wednesday, 16 Democratic senators — including Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin — embraced it. It was a major breakthrough for the movement to establish a single-payer system that guarantees health care to all Americans at an affordable cost, which has long been championed by Sanders and Michigan Congressman John Conyers (the sponsor of a House single-payer bill co-sponsored by Congressman Mark Pocan, D-town of Vermont). Cap Times associate editor John Nichols recently sat down with the senator from Vermont to discuss why single-payer is suddenly on the agenda.
Sanders credited activists (like Madison physicians Gene and Linda Farley) with building a base of support for single-payer over many decades. He noted that he spoke about it in every major speech that he delivered during his 2016 presidential run. But he also pointed to a unique confluence of events in recent months that has generated a dramatic surge in support for single-payer. Here’s some of what Sanders said when Nichols asked the senator: Why do you think single-payer is gaining so much traction at this point?
SANDERS: What I think you’re seeing now is this:
The savage Republican attack (on the Affordable Care Act and other existing health care programs and protections), this effort to throw over 20 million people off the health insurance they have, people are resisting that.
People also understand that the Affordable Care Act did not go far enough. No one will tell you that deductibles are not too high, that co-payments are not too high, that premiums are not too high. The price of prescription drugs is totally unacceptable. Everybody acknowledges that. The Affordable Care Act did not resolve those issues.
People are saying, OK, we made some progress. Twenty million more people have health insurance; that’s important. In states like Kentucky and West Virginia, the number of uninsured plummeted; that is a good thing. But has health care reform gone anywhere near far enough? The answer is that it has not.
So now people are saying: What is the alternative? And then, suddenly, a lot of people are saying: You know what, maybe we should join every other major country on Earth in guaranteeing health care for all people. The good news for us is, we’re not proposing some kind of radical idea. I live 50 miles away — five zero — 50 miles away from Canada; they, without any big deal, under Liberal governments, under Conservative governments, they have a health care system that is far more cost-effective than ours, that guarantees health care to all people with prescription-drug costs that are far lower.
It’s not just Canada, obviously. It’s every major country in Europe. Each system is different, but they all have the characteristics of being universal (everybody is covered), private insurance companies are not involved in the basic health care package for the purpose of making profits, prescription-drug costs are much lower.
People hear that — and they increasingly do hear that — and they say: Yes, we have got to move in that direction.
NICHOLS: There’s the political side and the personal side. People are opposed to what President Trump and the Republicans are doing, but they also recognize a need for a new approach to health care. Is that right?
SANDERS: I think the evolution of health care in America — where today if you’re an ordinary person, with say a four-person family, you might be paying $15,000 or $20,000 a year for health insurance; where employers are paying a fortune, where deductibles are too high, premiums are too high, prescription drugs are too high — people are looking around and they’re saying: This is not working; we need to move in a different direction.
You combine that with the outrageous profits that the pharmaceutical industry is making, profits that the insurance companies are making; the high CEO salaries and compensation that these guys are getting; the fraudulent activity on the part of many people in the medical industry. Americans are saying: Enough is enough!
There is no question that the momentum is with us, and we are going to help lead that effort. But we have to understand that this is going to be a really, really tough fight, a very tough fight. We’ve got to be smart about it. Already, before the legislation was introduced, Republicans have made it clear that they see this as an opportunity to frighten the American people — by telling them that their taxes are going to go way up …
NICHOLS: Claiming that it will cost tens of trillions …
SANDERS: Yes, you’ve got some group that comes up with some figure. And what they of course are neglecting to mention is that, if you are now paying $15,000 or $20,000 for health insurance, you’re not going to have to pay that. So if I said to you, “You’re not going to have to pay $15,000 or $20,000 for health insurance, but you’re going to pay somewhat more in taxes,” you’d say, “Hey, that’s a great deal; sign me up.” But we’re going to see many, many millions of dollars spent to try to hide that simple fact. So, if you read The Washington Post, all they will talk about is the amount of new revenue that is being needed. They will not talk about the fact that the average family, if we fund this thing in a progressive way, will end up being much better off financially, because the amount of taxes they may have to pay will be significantly less than the amount they are saving on what they are paying for health insurance.
But there should be no question about this, Republicans and the insurance industry and the drug companies will be spending a fortune to try and confuse the American people. … Our task is to counter the money that is spent, to counter the confusion … with a plan that responds to the needs of the great majority of the America people. That’s what single-payer does.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising
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