Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont made clear Thursday that he will continue pursuing a sizable expansion of Medicare as part of the American Families Plan after President Joe Biden excluded the overwhelmingly popular idea from his $1.8 trillion proposal, which contains massive subsidies for the private insurance industry.
Sanders told the Washington Post that he "absolutely" intends to continue pushing to lower Medicare's eligibility age and broaden its coverage to include dental, vision, and hearing aids once Congress takes up Biden's opening offer, which also omits a widely supported proposal to lower sky-high prescription drug costs.
"It's time for Medicare to finally cover hearing, dental, and vision care."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders
During his primetime address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night, Biden gave lip service to both ideas, proclaiming, "Let's give Medicare the power to save hundreds of billions of dollars by negotiating lower drug prescription prices."
"And the money we save, which is billions of dollars, can go to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and expand Medicare coverage benefits without costing taxpayers an additional penny," the president said. "It's within our power to do it; let's do it now."
The White House has yet to explain the disconnect between the president's rhetorical commitment to lowering drug costs and expanding Medicare and his apparent willingness to delay action on both by leaving them out of his American Families Plan—a decision that angered patient advocacy groups.
As chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders is positioned to have significant influence over the legislative package, particularly if Republican opposition forces Democrats to push the bill through the budget reconciliation process.
"We must take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry, lower drug prices, and use the savings to expand Medicare by lowering the eligibility age and providing dental, hearing, and vision care to tens of millions of older Americans," Sanders tweeted earlier this week.
It’s time for Medicare to finally cover hearing, dental and vision care. pic.twitter.com/Lzx5mIf3ki
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) April 27, 2021
Lowering the Medicare eligibility age and expanding the program's benefits are extremely popular with the U.S. public and inside the Democratic caucus. Last week, as Common Dreams reported, more than 80 House Democrats sent a letter urging Biden to support lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60, a move that would extend coverage to an additional 23 million people.
Spearheaded by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the letter was signed by centrist Reps. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) and Jared Golden (D-Maine.), an indication of broad support for the proposal within the Democratic Party.
In a statement Thursday, Jayapal said Congress "must include in the Families Plan bringing down the price of pharmaceutical drugs for all Americans who are paying over twice as much as those in other countries."
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"We must also expand Medicare benefits for seniors to include dental, vision, and hearing benefits while lowering the Medicare eligibility age to cover tens of millions more," the Washington Democrat added.
"This push for Medicare expansion offers a rare opportunity to shore up a legendary public program with a decades-long track record, while delivering a mighty blow to the private insurance industry that leaves it less able to resist the demise it eventually deserves."
This past weekend, Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and more than a dozen other Democratic senators also implored Biden to support expanding Medicare, arguing that "the time is long overdue for us to expand and improve this program so that millions of older Americans can receive the healthcare they need, including eyeglasses, hearing aids, and dental care."
But at least one powerful Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, is already signalling his opposition to adding Medicare expansion to the American Families Plan.
"No, I'm not for it, period," said Manchin, whose vote Democrats need to keep intact their razor-thin majority in the upper chamber.
In column for Common Dreams Thursday morning, Richard Eskow noted that any effort to lower drug costs and expand Medicare is also sure to face intense opposition from the industries benefiting most from the status quo.
"Lowering the Medicare age still faces resistance from the hospital industry and other interests that would lose revenue if more claims are paid under Medicare's rates," wrote Eskow. "Big Pharma is resolutely opposed to changes that would curb its trillion-dollar death trip. Party leaders who raise money from industry donors are undoubtedly weighing the cost in lost campaign cash against the political popularity of these measures."
"One thing's for sure: rhetorical genuflections aren’t enough anymore," he added.
Healthcare writer Natalie Shure similarly argued in the New Republic Wednesday that it would be a huge moral and political mistake for Biden and the Democratic Party to push off Medicare expansion any longer.
"By improving the benefits of traditional Medicare and luring enrollees away from privately managed Medigap and Advantage plans, Democrats can bolster the healthcare financing system by funding public programs, as opposed to sending billions of dollars in ACA subsidies straight to private gatekeepers," Shure wrote. "Meanwhile, aging Americans will be materially relieved of staggering costs that push them to, say, skip filling both prescriptions and cavities."
"To top it off, there are rumors afoot that suggest the age cohort that would reap these benefits votes in large numbers!" Shure added. "For supporters of single-payer healthcare, like Bernie Sanders, Pramila Jayapal, and their allies, this push for Medicare expansion offers a rare opportunity to shore up a legendary public program with a decades-long track record, while delivering a mighty blow to the private insurance industry that leaves it less able to resist the demise it eventually deserves."