The Health Care Debate Is Long Overdue

Jesse Jackson | 11/8/2019, 9:05 a.m.
Affordable health care for all is now at the center of the presidential debate. Two of the top three contenders ...

Affordable health care for all is now at the center of the presidential debate. Two of the top three contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination -- Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders -- support Medicare for All. The third -- Joe Biden -- and those hoping to take his place as the leading centrist in the race -- Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar -- have attacked the plan to contrast their candidacies from Sanders and Warren. Donald Trump, who wants to eliminate the Affordable Care Act itself, and has already added some 10 million people to the ranks of the uninsured, scorns it as "socialism," just as earlier Republicans libeled Social Security and Medicare itself when they were under consideration.

In 1984 and 1988, I made a single-payer Medicare for All plan central to my presidential campaign. As a policy, it has always made the most sense. The question has always been whether the politicians had the nerve to weather the fierce attack that insurance and pharmaceutical drug companies will unleash against the proposal and any candidate who supports it, and whether voters would be scared off by the attacks.

Sanders brought Medicare for All back into the national political debate in his remarkable run for the Democratic nomination in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. The National Nurses Association and others have helped build a movement out of that momentum. Sanders has "written the bill," and in the House, Rep. Pramila Jayapal has introduced a detailed complement to the Sanders bill. Elizabeth Warren, who signed onto the Sanders bill, now has produced a clear plan on what Medicare for All would cover, and how it would be paid for.

The basic principles and values are clear and widely popular. Health care should be a right, not a privilege. No one should go without the care they need because they cannot afford it. No one should go bankrupt simply because they get sick.

Yet our current health care system offends each of those principles. We spend almost two times per capita on health care as other advanced nations. If you have a lot of money or a strong union, you can get excellent health care. For the rest, care is rationed by money. Twenty-four million go without insurance, up 10 million under Trump. Another 65 million are underinsured, one serious illness away from bankruptcy. Health care costs are the leading cause of bankruptcy.

Medicare for All is popular at first look. Then the insurance and drug companies and the opponents unleash their arguments: government will mess it up, it will raise your taxes, it will take away your current insurance. Presented with that information, people's doubts grow.

So most of the opponents fly under a false flag: they lay on the arguments against Medicare for All, but claim they support health care as a human right and support some version of a public option, giving people the illusion of choice. The reality is that those plans will still leave millions without coverage and many millions more underinsured.