WASHINGTON — Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who is also a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, became the lead sponsor of the House single-payer health care bill on Wednesday. The legislation has detractors among his fellow Democrats, but Ellison said he’s eager for a “debate” on the policy.
“Our movement is ascending, but the truth is that, for many years, people weren’t there,” Ellison said of the “Medicare for All” push in an interview with Yahoo News on Sirius XM’s politics channel, POTUS. “So more and more people are coming on every day, but not everyone is on. We have to convince them, we have to talk to them, we need to engage in a respectful, fact-based debate about which systems are the best.”
Ellison’s House colleagues voted unanimously to let him assume leadership of the bill, which is officially named “The Expanded & Improved Medicare for All Act” (H.R. 676). It was originally sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who stepped down late last year amid allegations of sexual misconduct. The bill would establish a universal health care system akin to the Medicare program that currently exists for senior citizens and includes coverage for prescriptions, primary care, emergencies, and long-term care.
“Everybody would get a card, and you can get the care that you need, not unlike what they have in Canada right now. And truth be told, every major industrial country has a universal system; many of them have single-payer systems,” said Ellison.
Conyers first introduced the bill in 2003 with 25 co-sponsors. As of this writing, there are 121 co-sponsors of the bill, all of whom are Democrats. In the Senate, a separate Medicare for All bill has also been introduced by former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
No Republicans have signed on to the idea of Medicare for All, and the plan doesn’t enjoy universal support from Democrats. In the House, there are 72 Democrats who do not back the measure and 31 of the Senate Democrats don’t support Sanders’s bill in the upper chamber.
Polls show a growing number of people support a government-run health care system. The country is essentially split between those who want a public program and those who prefer private insurance.
Critics note Medicare for All would come with tax increases to pay for the trust fund that finances the program.
“It would essentially be paid for through some taxes. One would be a 5 percent tax on high-net-worth individuals that just got a major tax cut a few weeks ago, so they got it,” Ellison said, adding, “There would be a financial transactions tax, and it would be a very small payroll tax to cover everybody.”
And overall, Ellison argued the program would “save a lot of money” by bringing down health care costs for individuals, including premiums, co-pays, deductibles and the price of medicine.
“It would save the nation more than $500 billion a year, in large measure because of preventative care,” Ellison said.
Along with cutting down on expensive health emergencies due to lack of preventive treatment, Ellison claimed the bill would lower administrative costs associated with health care. Sanders has cited a similar $500 billion figure tied to those costs. Politifact called that claim “half-true” and said the number may be a high estimate, though there could still be “pretty substantial savings” of at least $300 billion.
Another sticking point for Medicare for All critics is the question of what might happen to people who currently have private insurance and are satisfied with their policies. Ellison did not answer directly when asked if he could make the infamous “if you like your plan you can keep it” promise that dogged President Obama following the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. However, he said there would be room for private insurance policies to exist under his plan.
“You would be able to take out private insurance policies for certain things,” Ellison said. “It’s not inconceivable that single-payer systems and private systems coexist. They certainly do in England right now, so it’s not really that big of a problem.”
While Ellison points to programs in Western Europe and Canada as exemplary models, some critics respond by noting that those programs are plagued by long lines and lower standards than the U.S. system. Ellison said health outcomes in this country have “lagged behind” other nations, a claim backed by some experts. He also pointed out Canadians are largely satisfied with their public health system and want to see it expand.
“I’ve never met a Canadian that wants to switch their system for ours,” Ellison said. “They like their system. Do they complain about it? Yes. Because, guess what? People complain about stuff no matter where they live. … But I can tell you that people who live in Canada and benefit from that health care system, they like it.”
With all 435 House seats and 35 spots in the Senate up for election this year, Medicare for All has become a major question for Democrats on the campaign trail. The issue is in some ways emblematic of the divide that emerged in Sanders’s presidential primary race against Hillary Clinton and Ellison’s campaign for the DNC chairmanship, between the party’s progressive base and the establishment.
One Democratic candidate who has taken heat from progressives for not embracing Medicare for All is Talley Sergent, who is running to represent West Virginia’s second congressional district. Sergent also appeared on Yahoo News’ SiriusXM broadcast on Wednesday, and described Medicare for All as “an option.” We asked what she’d say if she won her race and Ellison called her up to ask her to sign on to his bill.
“Well, I’d appreciate the congressman calling me up, but I’m going to listen to the folks across West Virginia and make sure that it makes sense for people here,” Sergent said. “That’s who I care most about, and what they think and what they say.”
With his dual role as one of the top backers of Medicare for All and a leader of the DNC, Ellison is in a unique position. However, he said he doesn’t believe the party needs to take a side, and he thinks Democratic candidates can succeed regardless of their position on his bill.
“I think people can win for all kinds of things … all over the country. This is not a doctrinaire movement where we’re going to litmus-test people,” Ellison said.
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