Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) have reintroduced their Medicare for All bill, with more than half of the Democratic caucus signed on and some clinicians groups such as the National Nurses Union also coming out in support of the measure.
While the legislation doesn’t have enough support to pass the House, let alone the Senate, the proponents of the single-payer bill maintain that the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the deep flaws in the US healthcare system, providing new momentum to the Medicare for All grassroots campaign.
Among the 109 cosponsors of the legislation, notably, is Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), assistant Speaker of the House. In addition, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr (D-NJ), chair of the House energy and commerce committee, has committed to holding a hearing on the Medicare for All bill, said Jayapal at a press conference last week that National Nurses United hosted on Facebook.
Including the nurses’ union, which has 150,000 members, more than 300 local, state, and national organizations have endorsed the bill, including groups representing doctors, Jayapal said.
Physicians for a National Health Program (PHNP), which has long favored a single-payer system, issued its own press release supporting the new Medicare for All bill.
Aside from Republican opposition, the biggest obstacle to passage of the bill is that it lacks the support of President Joe Biden. During the electoral campaign, Biden said he favored building on the Affordable Care Act, although he also espoused the idea of a public option, which is a government-run plan that would cover the uninsured and make insurance more affordable for individuals.
The previous iteration of the Jayapal-Dingell legislation called for transitioning to Medicare for All within 2 years. In contrast, the Medicare for All bills introduced in past years by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would have phased in the new system over 4 years. Even that would be too short a timeframe for such a monumental change, some experts say.
The new legislation would “guarantee healthcare for everyone in the US for life, with free choice of hospital and medical provider, and no financial firewalls to stand in the way of care,” said the PNHP news release. “Unlike commercial plans, Medicare for All covers all medically necessary services, including hospital and doctor visits; dental, vision, hearing, mental health, and reproductive care; long-term care; ambulatory services; and prescription drugs.”
A summary of the current bill’s predecessor, the Medicare for All Act of 2019, says that the single-payer system would cover all US residents and that there would be no cost-sharing with patients for covered services.
The legislation would be a good deal for current Medicare beneficiaries, said Nancy Altman, president of the advocacy organization Social Security Works, at the press conference.
The Medicare for All Act, she said, would rescue seniors who are often impoverished because of their high out-of-pocket costs under Medicare. Moreover, she noted, the bill would cover all long-term care, and would add hearing, dental, and vision coverage to Medicare.
Today, she said, health costs consume 40% of the average Social Security benefit. Under Medicare for All, this would no longer be the case.
COVID Reveals Holes in System
The speakers at the press conference emphasized that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how broken our healthcare system is.
“This pandemic has laid bare the flaws of our healthcare system,” said Bonnie Castillo, RN, executive director of National Nurses United. “It’s clear we must transition to Medicare for All.”
Because of the pandemic, she noted, millions of people lost their health insurance along with their jobs. Many people with COVID-19, she added, waited too long to seek care because of the cost. Thus, lives could have been saved if the United States had had Medicare for All.
Jayapal said that in the year since the pandemic began, “the case for Medicare for All has never been clearer.” Like Castillo, she said that national health insurance could have saved lives and prevented severe illness from COVID-19.
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) said that the Affordable Care Act had achieved progress in reducing the number of uninsured. But when COVID-19 hit, he said, too many sick people still lacked access to care, especially minorities. The uninsured were used to seeking care in the ER but were afraid to go there during the pandemic. Laid-off workers can’t afford COBRA premiums, he added, and many middle class people can’t afford out-of-pocket health expenses even if they are insured.
Some members of Congress told deeply personal stories. Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) said his father supported his wife and 13 children as a self-employed gardener, but couldn’t afford health insurance. So family members didn’t seek care until they were very sick, and then they went to the ER.
“The same is happening today,” he said. “It’s time to fix what ails our country.”
Rep. Nikema Williams (D-GA) also offered a personal account. In 2011, while running for the Georgia state senate, she was injured in a car accident. She refused to be transported to the hospital because she had no health insurance, she said, adding that 100,000 people in her district are uninsured today.
Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA) contended that Medicare for All would be good for businesses. He said he used to lead a law firm that provided health insurance to its employees. Every year, he said, insurance premiums would rise by double digits. It came to the point where he told some partners that he couldn’t give them raises because of health costs.
Cartwright blamed the inefficiency of the healthcare system for the rapid rise in costs. Medicare pays only 3% for administration, he noted. By eliminating administrative costs for private insurance, Medicare for All would cut 20% out of healthcare spending, and it would lower costs for employers, he added.
Medicare for All is popular, according to some polls. In a Hill-HarrisX poll last April, 69% of registered voters supported a single-payer system. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in October found that 53% of adults favored a national health plan.
A Pew Research Center survey last September found that 63% of adults say the government has a responsibility to provide health coverage to all, up from 59% in 2019. However, just 36% of respondents supported a government-run single-payer system, and 26% said coverage should be provided through a mix of private insurers and government programs.