On September 13th, Bernie Sanders and 16 Democratic co-sponsors introduced the “Medicare for All Act of 2017” to establish a national health insurance program. Responses to the legislation, and its supporters, have ranged from praise to worry to scorn. Nobody expects the bill to pass. So should Democrats support this bill?
Supporters of the bill see the legislation as a way to focus the health care debate around universal coverage, rather than fixing Obamacare or “repeal-and-replace.” Pragmatic liberals, who may support universal health insurance, are worried there is not enough detail in Sanders’s legislation to demonstrate the feasibility of his plan. But Sanders has admitted his plan is meant to be a very rough draft – an opening bid.
Opponents are using the estimated cost of universal insurance coverage ($1.4 trillion per year) as another reason not to support the bill. Even Democratic legislators have expressed concern about the cost of universal coverage. Sen. Diane Feinstein recently told Politico she won’t support Medicare-for-all because “the cost is enormous.” Critics of the bill, however, are peddling an inconsistent argument. Some legislators who oppose the bill because of a lack of detail previously supported, and voted for, legislation introducing a high-cost program without specific details.
In 2002, 29 Democratic senators voted to send the United States to war in Iraq, despite the absence of a detailed plan. Depending on the source, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost between $1 trillion and $6 trillion dollars, which would have been enough to fund Sanders’s plan for approximately one to four years. Five Democratic senators, including Feinstein, who are currently not supporting the “Medicare-for-all” bill voted to approve the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), sending our country to war.
Our legislative history repeatedly shows that politicians ignore cost when they deem issues important. Another relevant example is the 2008 Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), which 39 Democratic senators voted to pass. Despite the high price tag, politicians considered the bill vital in the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, giving the Treasury Secretary broad leeway “to purchase troubled assets from any financial institution.”
Democrats need to put their reservations aside, as they have in the past, and support “Medicare-for-all.” If Democrats want to make national health insurance coverage mainstream, they need to visibly and repeatedly express support for the bill. Fox News and the Tea Party have succeeded in making more radical ideas mainstream by using discourse that consistently supports and familiarizes these ideas. Democrats should use this same tactic to build support for universal insurance coverage.
By making a significant, coordinated push to familiarize the public with universal health care coverage, Democrats can make a radical policy more socially acceptable in the future.
First-year Blake Rosser is a Master of Public Policy candidate interested in campaign finance reform and social justice.