If this country is going to “build back better” from the coronavirus pandemic, there has to be an understanding that the United States cannot bury a half-million of its own and then return to business as usual when it comes to health care.
Of all the awful truths that the past year has revealed, none is more stark than the reality that prioritizing the bottom lines of billionaires over the health and safety of Americans doesn’t work. As Covid-19 swept across the United States in 2020, fundamental flaws in this country’s for-profit health care system made it harder to test, treat, and vaccinate the most vulnerable among us. That cost lives, as doctors, nurses, and other frontline health care personnel sacrificed everything to care for the dying. It also cost taxpayers trillions of dollars, as Congress enacted one emergency funding bill after another in order to keep ahead of the crisis.
“The pandemic has highlighted in deadly detail what nurses have known for decades: Our current health care system, based on private insurance tied to employment, is a colossal failure and leaves far too many of our patients to suffer and die unnecessarily,” says Bonnie Castillo, the registered nurse who serves as executive director of the National Nurses United union. “While we mourn the more than 500,000 lives lost to Covid, we rededicate ourselves to the fight to ensure that everyone is provided with high-quality health care regardless of where they live, how much money they make, or their health, immigration, or employment status. Nurses will never rest until we get this done.”
That fight will be waged in Congress with new vigor, now that Representatives Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) have introduced the Medicare for All Act of 2021. They have done so with a sense of urgency that reflects both the pandemic moment and an understanding of where we now stand in the historic struggle to establish a single-payer health care system in the United States.
“While this devastating pandemic is shining a bright light on our broken, for-profit health care system, we were already leaving nearly half of all adults under the age of 65 uninsured or underinsured before COVID-19 hit. And we were cruelly doing so while paying more per capita for health care than any other country in the world,” explains Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Amplifying her colleague’s message, Dingell says, “A system that prioritizes profits over patients and ties coverage to employment was no match for a global pandemic and will never meet the needs of our people. In the wealthiest nation on earth, patients should not be launching GoFundMe pages to afford lifesaving health care for themselves or their loved ones. Medicare for All will build an inclusive health care system that won’t just open the door to care for millions of our neighbors, but do it more efficiently and effectively than the one we have today. Now is not the time to shy away from these generational fights, it is the time for action.”
The idea of guaranteeing health care as a right is not new to Congress. Dingell’s late husband, Michigan Representative John Dingell, was for decades the House’s steadiest advocate for a national health insurance program—along with his longtime colleague Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.). Before John Dingell began his 59-year tenure in the chamber, his father, Representative John Dingell Sr., was a health care reformer going back to the days of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
But this time feels different. Because of the pandemic, and because of a growing sense of the need for systemic change, the Jayapal-Dingell legislation has attracted a striking level of support from grassroots groups. In addition to National Nurses United, the legislation has been endorsed by 300 local, state, and national organizations, including Physicians for a National Health Program, Public Citizen, the Center for Popular Democracy, People’s Action, Social Security Works, the Labor Campaign for Single Payer, and the Service Employees International Union. This enthusiasm is reflected in Congress.
Half of the House Democratic Caucus is backing the bill, including 14 committee chairs and key leaders in the chamber. “The Medicare for All Act of 2021 has several new cosponsors including the Chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Representative Frank Pallone Jr. who just committed to a hearing on Medicare for All,” noted Jayapal’s office. Pallone recently told The Washington Post that “the goal of universal coverage is going to be at the center of everything we’re going to do on health care.” And the measure’s profile will be enhanced when Senate Budget Committee chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduces legislation in that chamber.
No one thinks that the deal is done. Resistance to Medicare for All will be fierce, from Republicans and from some of the same Democrats who have always rejected a bold response. President Biden, for instance, said in May 2020 that he would veto Medicare For All legislation. But Biden has moved on a lot of issues since then, and advocates believe lessons from the pandemic are likely to strengthen arguments for treating health care as a right, rather than a privilege.
“Physicians have been saying it for years: We cannot give patients the care they need in a fractured and profit-driven system. For too long, doctors have watched helplessly as our patients delayed or skipped needed care—even walking out our hospital doors—because they could not afford to pay. While some are uninsured, many of these are patients enrolled in commercial insurance plans, but can’t afford the thousands of dollars they must pay up-front in deductibles and copays,” said Dr. Susan Rogers, the president of Physicians for a National Health Program. “Medicare for All is the only plan that puts patients first: It guarantees health care for life, with free choice of hospital and provider, and no financial firewalls to stand in the way of care. It’s no surprise that a majority of physicians and other health providers now support single-payer Medicare for All.”
So, too, notes Jayapal, do the majority of Americans. The representative points to polling that shows Medicare for All is supported by 69 percent of registered voters, including 87 percent of Democrats, the majority of independents, and nearly 46 percent of Republicans favor the plan. “There is a solution to this health crisis,” said Jayapal, “a popular one that guarantees health care to every person as a human right and finally puts people over profits and care over corporations. That solution is Medicare for All—everyone in, nobody out.”