Sanders and Co. Unveil Medicare-for-All Bill in Washington

In what was billed as a press conference but was really a campaign rally, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., formally introduced his Medicare for All legislation on Sept. 12.

But in an indication of the changed political optics of the measure, which would establish single-payer government-run national health insurance, Sanders and his supporters from National Nurses United – whose members provided a big share of the standing-room only crowd in a large Senate hearing room -- aren’t lone wolves on the issue anymore.

Medicare for All has been a top NNU cause for years, and Sanders’ long championship of it led them to be the first union to endorse his Democratic presidential bid. Some 21 unions strongly pull for Medicare for All, including the Steelworkers and the Amalgamated Transit Union. The AFL-CIO recently strongly endorsed it as a prime health care option, not just a future distant goal.

“We have been working across the country for many years to bring to life a more humane health care system,” said Melissa Johnson-Camacho, the NNU member and oncology registered nurse from Northern California who flew in to speak at Sanders’ event.

“We want one based on patient needs, not pain and profit. I am here to advocate for my patients,” she declared. A cancer diagnosis now, even with enactment of the Affordable Care Act seven years ago, means not just pain and suffering, but still, for many, financial ruin, said Johnson-Camacho, who treats cancer patients.

Sanders announced 16 senators are co-sponsors of Medicare for All. Four named as potential nominees on the 2020 national Democratic ticket – New Jersey’s Cory Booker, California’s Kamala Harris, Massachusetts’ progressive firebrand Elizabeth Warren and New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand – joined Sanders on the podium to enthusiastically endorse the bill.

Behind them and in the crowd were dozens of NNU members, including one who flew in from California to speak. And the speakers were sometimes interrupted by “Medicare for All!” chants and faced waving signs, with that same saying, from the packed room.

“The media likes to talk about the politics of this. But that’s not what concerns the American people: They want to know what we’re doing to fix a dysfunctional system” of health care, Sanders declared.

“It’s a health care system that costs twice as much as any others” in other developed nations “and still leaves 28 million people uninsured.” Single-payer, he repeatedly emphasized, would insure them.

Sanders and veteran Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., have introduced Medicare for All for years, but it’s gone nowhere in the Republican-run Congress. And even when Democrats ran the show in 2009-10 and held hearings and worked on the ACA, they ignored single-payer. Its lesser cousin, the so-called “public option,” got short shrift then on Capitol Hill.

Thanks to Sanders’ insurgent presidential campaign last year, and the enthusiasm it roused for him and his stands – single-payer among them – the politics of single-payer have changed.

Sanders released few details of Medicare for All, other than to say it would cover everyone in the U.S., including those remaining uninsured even after passage and implementation of the ACA. The Census Bureau reported the day before that, including Medicare and Medicaid, 8.8 percent of all U.S. adults lack medical coverage, an all-time low.

And Medicare for All would also include undocumented people, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, stated. The ACA excludes the undocumented.

Sanders said government would pay for health care coverage through a payroll tax increase, aimed mostly at the rich, and abolition of insurance company premiums that now cost workers and their families thousands of dollars year.

And Sanders added two other benefits of single-payer: Lower costs for business, and greater career choices for workers.

“We say to millions of workers that you should not have to be stuck in a job you don’t want just because it provides health care for your family. The economy and your family will benefit” through increased ability of workers to change jobs and not lose health coverage.

“This is a non-partisan issue,” California’s Harris contended. “Cancer, heart disease and diabetes affects everyone, whether you live in a red state or a blue state. Health care is a right despite your status, your gender or your zip code.”

Though energy for single-payer was palpable in the room, and though polls show rising acceptance of it nationwide, Sanders and other speakers warned of pitfalls in a long road towards success.

He said special interests, led by the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, would do their best to deep-six single-payer. The two industries hugely profit from the current system, even with the ACA as law. Several speakers said they profit from people’s suffering – including the suffering of those to whom insurers deny care. Single-payer, Sanders said, would put the insurers out of business and put negotiations over drug prices in the hands of the government.

The answer, speakers said, is enormous grass-roots organizing, like the massive mobilization that defeated Congress’ ruling Republicans and preserved the ACA.

“We have dozens of grass-roots organizations and unions that will help pass this bill,” Sanders stated. “But today we begin a long and difficult struggle to end the disgrace of the U.S. being the only major country not to guarantee health care for all.

“Our opponents have the money and the power,” Sanders said of the insurers and the drug companies. “But if millions of people in this country get involved and fight back, I have no doubt we’ll pass Medicare for all sooner than people believe.”