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Everybody Wants ‘Medicare for All’—Except Our Leaders

The enemies are manifold: Republicans seeking to end all government assistance, private insurance companies seeking to preserve the status quo, and Democrats backing those companies

A volunteer hands out a poster as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was set to address a “Medicare for All” rally in downtown Columbia, S.C., in October 2018. (Photo: Meg Kinnard / AP)

A volunteer hands out a poster as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was set to address a “Medicare for All” rally in downtown Columbia, S.C., in October 2018. (Photo: Meg Kinnard / AP)

The health care debate in the United States has shifted dramatically over the past ten years. When newly elected President Barack Obama came to power in 2009 he grappled with reforming the broken health care system, eventually adopting an approach that had been championed by conservatives to craft the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. During the debates over a law that eventually earned the moniker Obamacare, the closest that Congress and the president came to universal health care coverage was the “public option.” Ultimately, that too was compromised away as Republicans howled over so-called “death panels” and government intrusions into personal health decisions before Obamacare was passed into law. Then came the relentless attacks, both verbal and legal, on the resulting legislation, with Republicans continuously whittling away at the modest reforms.

Today, right-wing media outlets seem to have moved past denouncing Obamacare to their new obsession against “Medicare for all.” Most Americans know Medicare as a government-run health program for seniors. The name Medicare for all is therefore self-explanatory and quite attractive to anyone who has grappled with unaffordable co-pays and deductibles, rising premiums, narrowly defined coverage or no health insurance at all. So it shouldn’t surprise us that right-wing media wants to kill the conversation before it even starts.

The basic premise of the right-wing argument against Medicare for all is “How can we possibly afford it?” For example, Fox News saw fit in its coverage of Medicare for all to remark that, “Critics point to the soaring cost of implementing it—something numerous studies put well into the trillions.” Another right-wing media outlet, the Washington Examiner, published an op-ed titled “The real cost of ‘Medicare for all,’ “in which author Tiana Lowe painted a dystopian picture of how “moving to single-payer would kill people” with “Soviet-style shortages of providers” whose effects would “reverberate across the country.” To Lowe, our current system works just fine the way it is, and is in fact “[t]he most productive, innovative, and charitable healthcare system in the world.”

The Wall Street Journal lauded former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who in his recent announcement of a presidential bid said he opposed Medicare for all because, in his estimation, “That’s not correct. That’s not American.” The Journal agreed with Schultz, saying, “If it works in Scandinavia, it won’t work in the U.S. because Americans won’t pay the required taxes.”

Sitting back and watching Democrats trade away all the political points they have earned from opposing President Trump’s agenda is exactly the wrong approach, because they will trade away our rights for cold, hard Wall Street campaign cash.

Conservative columnist Lee Habeeb, writing in Newsweek, attempted (and failed) to make the bizarre argument that Medicare for all was “As Ridiculous As Nationalizing Potato Chips.” President Donald Trump made many of these same arguments in his USA Today op-ed on the subject last fall. Strangely, the fearmongering and hand-wringing about looming tax increases to pay for programs never seems to enter conservative logic when it comes to questions of paying for tax breaks for the wealthy or the latest F-15 fighter jet.

Setting aside the false affordability arguments against Medicare for all (which Paul Waldman of The Washington Post brilliantly debunked by demonstrating that Medicare for all will cost only $32 trillion over 10 years compared to the $50 trillion we now spend each decade), it ought to be considered a huge victory for proponents of Medicare for all that right-wing media and conservative figures are paying any attention to the issue.

Another heartening measure of the progress on Medicare for all is how the so-called liberal media is taking it seriously. Whether or not they get the story right, they are at least exposing Americans to the idea, especially as a litmus test for 2020 Democratic presidential contenders. The New York Times wrote how “Medicare for All Emerges as Early Policy Test for 2020 Democrats.” And while the paper did a poor job of accurately explaining how the program would cost less than what we’re currently paying for health care, it did showcase its popularity among presidential hopefuls and the public, paying particular attention to Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sanders, who is widely credited with making Medicare for all a mainstream issue through his 2016 presidential campaign, did not receive nearly as much serious attention then from publications like The New York Times as he does now.

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To summarize, the right-wing media hates the idea of Medicare for all while liberal mainstream outlets at least acknowledge it is an issue worth discussing. Most importantly, the public really likes the idea, and a new poll showed voters are likely to back candidates who adopt a position in favor of Medicare for all. Even a majority of Republicans are in favor of it. What this means is that the time has finally come—although many decades late—for a serious legislative push to make the popular idea a reality.

But—and there is always a but—despite the political power they have gained over the past few months, Democrats can always be trusted to screw up a good thing—even when it falls into their laps. Already there are reports that some Democratic representatives who successfully managed to win seats held by Republicans last November are now reneging on their commitment to Medicare for all. Politico reported that Democrats have introduced at least eight different health care reform plans, most of which take incremental and inadequate steps toward Medicare for all. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, basking in the glow of praise for standing up to Trump during the recent government shutdown, has been found assuring health insurance executives not to worry about Medicare for all.

Sitting back and watching Democrats trade away all the political points they have earned from opposing President Trump’s agenda is exactly the wrong approach, because they will trade away our rights for cold, hard Wall Street campaign cash.

A newly formed insurance-industry lobby group called Protect Our Care has flooded the internet with progressive-sounding rhetoric on health care. The group effectively showcases the real hardships suffered by Americans on accessing affordable health care and then positions Obamacare as the best solution to the problem rather than Medicare for all. Its messaging is effective—there are few overt mentions of the Affordable Care Act. Instead, its discourse largely centers on protecting existing health coverage—a talking point most Americans would be hard-pressed to disagree with.

In the realm Protect Our Care occupies, the enemies of health care are Republicans who attack the deeply flawed existing coverage of those who have it, and the solution is preserving that deeply flawed existing coverage. In the real world, the enemies are manifold: Republicans seeking to end all government assistance, private insurance companies seeking to preserve the status quo (and their Obamacare subsidies), and Democrats backing those companies. The real-world solution is Medicare for all.

After all, if it is good enough for the nation’s seniors, and if the government manages to make it work for the nation’s elders without hand-wringing about affordability or the existential threat to private insurers, then why is it not good enough for the rest of us?

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Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates. She is the former founder, host and producer of KPFK Pacifica’s popular morning drive-time program “Uprising." She is also the co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of RAWA. She is the author, with James Ingalls, of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence" (2006).

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