Progressives on Thursday were quick to call foul after it was reported that Joe Biden, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, put forth a pair of policy proposals—one lowering the Medicare age to 60 and the other a student debt relief program—purportedly designed to win over supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders who instead saw the plans as woefully insufficient.
"We have to do more to ease the economic burden on working people," Biden said in a tweet announcing the plan. "So today, I'm adopting two new policies to help deliver relief."
We have to do more to ease the economic burden on working people. So today, I'm adopting two new policies to help deliver relief. As president, I will:
- Lower Medicare eligibility to age 60
- Forgive student debt for low-income and middle class families https://t.co/wtMnhJdCaR
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) April 9, 2020
"That he's willing to shift on these issues after telling us they were 'pie-in-the-sky' indicates that we can go further," tweeted Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders' campaign press secretary.
That he's willing to shift on these issues after telling us they were "pie-in-the-sky" indicates that we can go further.
*Lower the age to 55 year one, 45 year two, 35 year 3, & cover everyone in year 4. That's #MedicareForAll.
*Tax Wall St & cancel ALL student debt. https://t.co/wOMJziQ1nZ
— Briahna Joy Gray (@briebriejoy) April 9, 2020
Gray's optimism, however, was not shared by everyone on the left. In a lengthy Facebook essay reacting to the proposals, CUNY professor Corey Robin questioned how Biden could hope to pass anything approximating his plans through Congress.
"The rule of politics is you never get 100% of what you want," said Robin, adding, "Our sense of political time is not keeping up with actual time, and I find the euphoria of complacency and incrementalism totally mystifying."
Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman of the Washington Post broke the story Thursday, reporting that Biden was announcing the shift in policy as a way to show Sanders supporters that what he now supports is "significantly more liberal than what he supported when he was vice president."
As Sargent and Waldman explained, the policy proposals show that Biden and his campaign are acknowledging the political reality that Sanders and his movement have changed the national conversation around domestic politics:
There will, of course, be many Sanders supporters who will see these proposals as insufficient, and there's a reasonable case to be made for that position. But you could also see them as a validation of Sanders' entire strategy.
Sanders ran for president not just to win, but also to get his ideas in wide circulation and pull the Democratic Party to the left. And that’s precisely what's happening. The party is going to nominate a candidate with establishment roots and centrist instincts, but that candidate is adapting his policy agenda to move in Sanders' direction.
In an email to the Post, Economic Policy Institute director of research Josh Bivens said the overtures were further proof that the Sanders effect on the party was real and making a difference.
"Both of these ideas represent really welcome U-turns from what was damaging conventional wisdom even in big swaths of the Democratic Party for years," wrote Bivens.
But other progressives were skeptical, at best, of the content of Biden's proposals, calling the Medicare age rollback in particular a transparent attempt to placate concerns over the former vice president's commitment to single-payer healthcare that would benefit the private insurance industry more than taxpayers.
"These policies are what I would expect from Republicans," tweeted anthropolgist and political activist Michael Oman-Reagan. "This is not a 'big overture' by any stretch of the imagination."
In a tweet, healthcare advocacy group Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) wondered sarcastically if Biden had added an unnecessary "6" to the eligibility age—a reference to Medicare for All's immediate eligibility at birth.
— Physicians for a National Health Program (@PNHP) April 9, 2020
PNHP president-elect Dr. Susan Rogers, in exclusive comment to Common Dreams, said that Biden's so-called "big" gesture is simply not sufficient to address the healthcare crisis in the country, especially now that the coronavirus outbreak has paralyzed the economy and thrown millions out of work—and off of employer-provided insurance.
"One of the main benefits of Medicare for All is that it uncouples health coverage from employment, which is even more urgent now as our system of job-based private insurance is crumbling beneath our feet," said Rogers. "Reducing Medicare eligibility to age 60 does not resolve the underlying problem for the vast majority of working Americans and their families."
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Only Medicare for All, added Rogers, packs the cost-saving punch to solve both the healthcare and fiscal crises now facing the country.
"By cutting out the waste of private insurance, Medicare for All could save nearly $600 billion a year while covering everybody for all medically necessary care," said Rogers.
The only explanation for lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60 and then stopping: protecting the profits of the private health insurance industry.
— chemo and insulin should be free, too! (@AllOnMedicare) April 9, 2020
Jean Ross, a registered nurse and president of National Nurses United, the nation's largest nurses, union welcomed Biden's proposal as an improvement over his previous opposition to expanding Medicare and credited labor organizers and others for pushing Medicare for All to the forefront of the national conversation.
"Lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60 is a beginning step, and nurses and other activists will continue to press toward the essential goal of guaranteeing health care for everyone, regardless of age, ability to pay, race, gender, national origin, or immigration status," Ross told Common Dreams in an email, adding that Biden's proposal "also goes in the direction of the two current Medicare for All bills in the House and Senate sponsored by Rep. Pramilla Jayapal and Sen. Bernie Sanders that both begin by lowering the Medicare age to 55."
The growing movement and popular support for Medicare for All, said Ross, "is a tribute to years of hard work by nurses and other activists evidenced by the exit polls in every primary state that showed up to two thirds support of Democratic primary voters for replacing the present profit based system with a Medicare for all type alternative."
With the current COVID-19 pandemic acting as a "reminder of the failure of our present system"—including the millions who have lost their health care in the present crisis—Ross said that it's important more than ever "to press for the fundamental achievement of a more humane, patient centered recognition of health care as a human right for all."
Others pointed out that simply lowering the age by five years will not be enough to substantially solve the outrageous costs and wastes found in the for-profit system.
"The net effect of Biden's Medicare expansion would be to slough the most expensive patients off private insurance rolls and instead put them into government-subsidized, extremely profitable privatized Medicare Advantage plans," said healthcare activist and author Timothy Faust. "Some overture."
Sanders aide David Sirota was among those pointing out that the Biden proposal is less ambitious than one defeated in the Senate by former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) in 2010.
"For reference, lowering Medicare to age 60 is actually a retreat from Senate Dems' own push 10 years ago to lower it to age 55," Sirota tweeted.
Meanwhile, as Gray noted, the student debt relief aspect of the plan has very narrow, means-tested prerequisites.
Joe Biden's plan appears to exclude:
Graduates of for-profit colleges, who are among the most indebted;
The 1/3 of college students who attend private schools (other than HBCUs);
Graduates of trade schools;
Graduate student debt;
— Briahna Joy Gray (@briebriejoy) April 9, 2020
The cost of offering all students relief, Gray added, is the equivalent of tax cuts for the rich pushed through Congress by President Donald Trump and his Republican allies in 2018.
"Cancelling ALL student debt only costs $1.6 trillion—that's about the same as Trump's tax cut, which helped no one but the rich," said Gray.
Ultimately, the question is who should be taken care of, Gray tweeted.
"If we can bail out Wall Street," Gray said, "we can bail out students."