September 13, 2017 12:03 GMT by theguardian.com

Bernie Sanders unveils universal healthcare bill: 'We will win this struggle'

Bernie Sanders unveils universal healthcare bill: 'We will win this struggle'

Senator’s ‘Medicare for All’ bill, which is gaining steam among Democrats, would cover 323 million Americans under single system

The battle lines are drawn as Bernie Sanders launches his latest attempt to establish a healthcare system that covers all 323 million Americans.

Standing in opposition to Sanders’ plan are what he calls the “most powerful and greedy forces in American society”: the pharmaceutical industry, insurance companies, Wall Street and the Republican party.

“The opposition to this will be extraordinary,” Sanders said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office, prior to the launch of his universal healthcare bill, known as “Medicare for All”.

“They will spend an enormous amount of money fighting us. They will lie about what is in the program. They will frighten the American people,” he said.

Sanders has no illusions about the bill’s fate in a Republican-controlled Congress, where it has little chance of passing. But he says the time has arrived to have a debate he believes is fundamental: is healthcare a right or a privilege in America?

Sanders will formally unveil the bill at a press conference on Wednesday, with the backing of more than a quarter of the Democratic caucus in the Senate – a record level of support for a bill he introduced just four years ago with only one signature, his own.

The Sanders plan would radically reform the American healthcare system and transition to a government-administered insurance program over the course of four years. The new system would be underwritten by an increase in taxes.

The plan would provide comprehensive coverage for everything from the cost of hospital services, prescription drugs, mental health, maternity and newborn care and dental health.

During the first year of the program, the Medicare eligibility age would drop from 65 to 55, and all Americans under 18 would be added to the program. The eligibility age would gradually decrease until the fourth year, when everyone would receive a “universal Medicare card”.

Sanders said of the plan: “You’re going to the same private doctor that you went to. You’re going to go to the same hospital that you went to. The only difference is instead of having a Blue Cross Blue Shield [insurance] card – and having to argue with your insurance company – you’re going to have a Medicare For All card. That’s it.”

Since Sanders launched his presidential campaign in May 2015, public support for universal healthcare has climbed. Where 46% of the public supported such a system in 2008 and 2009, at the height of the debate over Obamacare, a recent Kaiser poll found 53% now support the idea.

But that same survey found that when respondents were told that a universal healthcare plan might give the government “too much control,” or that it might increases taxes, opposition spiked from 43% to 62% and 60% respectively.

And yet the bill is gaining steam among the Democratic party. Among the 15 senators co-sponsoring the bill are Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Al Franken – all of whom are rumored to be considering a run for president in 2020.

In the House of Representatives, a majority of Democrats have signed on to a similar measure introduced by John Conyers of Michigan, a bill he has brought forward in every Congress since 2003 without nearly as much support.

Still, Democratic leaders have declined to endorse the single-payer measure. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has said her focus is protecting President Obama’s Affordable Care Act from Republican attempts to tear it down. And Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, has said Sanders’ plan is one of several pieces of legislations under consideration in his caucus.

Supporters of the Vermont senator have threatened to run primary challenges against any Democrat who does not embrace the single-payer bill. Sanders said he would not impose a “litmus test” on his colleagues.

Bernie Sanders celebrates the 50th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid two years ago.
Bernie Sanders celebrates the 50th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid two years ago. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

“Politicians have got to get elected, and they have to do what the people who elected them want them to do,” Sanders said. “But what I have always believed is that when you change where people are coming from, when you change public consciousness around an issue, the politics follows.”

Republicans, bruised after a failed campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act, are eager to use Sanders’ progressive plan to attack Democrats. Of the 10 Senate Democrats up for re-election in states Trump won, only one, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, has signed on to the bill so far.

Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming and an orthopedic surgeon, said on Tuesday the Sanders bill “is becoming the litmus test for the liberal left” and decried the program as too costly. He pointed to Sanders’ home state, where legislators tried and failed to establish a single-payer system after experts estimated that running the program would require doubling taxes for residents of Vermont.

“While Bernie Sanders’ slogan may be very popular, it’s really the nuts and bolts and the details that matters the most,” he continued. “And that’s what’s it going to cost the American people in terms of money, in terms of time and in terms of their freedom of choice when it comes to healthcare.”

Some advocates of a single-payer system have echoed that critique, and say Sanders’ Medicare For All bill, like Republicans’ repeal and replace effort, is a popular idea that does nothing to resolve crucial policy decisions and ideological disagreements. Meanwhile Democrats have raised concerns that changing gears too quickly – shifting from defending Obamacare to overhauling it with a disruptive new plan – could backfire.

“The risk is getting distracted by a longer-term healthcare policy discussion when [Republicans] are still rabid to gut the ACA,” said Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, who is pushing a more modest measure that would serve as a stepping stone to universal healthcare.

But for advocates of the plan, such as Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut and one of the bill’s 15 sponsors, universal healthcare is “an idea whose time has come”.

“There should be no question about what our goal is: provide access to everyone,” Blumenthal told reporters on Tuesday. “There is nothing about the politics of the moment of the ACA that precludes supporting Medicare for All as the ultimate goal.”

Sanders said he believes Medicare for All, modeled after the Canadian system, is the most logical one for the US, but said he is open to other approaches that help push the country in the same direction. He acknowledged the hefty price tag but argued that the country already spends more per capita on health than other countries without getting remarkably better results.

Making universal healthcare, an idea relegated to the fringe of the party and cast as a progressive fantasy, a legislative reality will require massive grassroots mobilization, Sanders said. In addition to the 15 Democratic co-sponsors, Sanders will unveil the bill with the backing of at least two dozen left-leaning organizations that will help mobilize support in capitals and statehouses across the country.

“I don’t want anyone to think that this is a struggle that’s going to be won tomorrow. And I don’t want anyone to think that [Senate Majority leader] Mitch McConnell is coming onboard this legislation. He is not. Nor is [House Speaker] Paul Ryan,” Sanders said.

“But there is growing support among the American people and we will win this struggle.”

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