"Pivotal Moment in American History": Michael Lighty on Medicare-for-All
On September 13, 2017, Senator Bernard Sanders introduced S.1804 - a bill to establish a Medicare-for-all health insurance program, with 15 co-sponsors. Sanders Institute Fellow and Director of Public Policy for National Nurses United spoke with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! on the pivotal piece of legislation. According to a June poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, some 53% of Americans support a national health care plan.
UPDATE: As of September 14, 2017, there are now 16 co-sponsors for S.1804.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is slated to introduce universal healthcare legislation today, aimed at expanding Medicare coverage to include every American. In a New York Times op-ed published today, Sanders wrote, "This is a pivotal moment in American history. Do we, as a nation, join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee comprehensive health care to every person as a human right? Or do we maintain a system that is enormously expensive, wasteful and bureaucratic, and is designed to maximize profits for big insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, Wall Street and medical equipment suppliers?" Fifteen senators have already signed on as co-sponsors. The introduction of the Medicare for All Act comes after Republicans repeatedly failed to push through their legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The Republicans’ efforts sparked sustained grassroots protests, led by disability activists and healthcare professionals. We speak with Michael Lighty, director of public policy for National Nurses United and the California Nurses Association. National Nurses United has long advocated for a Medicare-for-all system.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Washington, D.C., where Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is slated to introduce universal healthcare legislation today aimed at expanding Medicare coverage to include every American. In a New York Times op-ed piece published today, Sanders writes, quote, "This is a pivotal moment in American history. Do we, as a nation, join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee comprehensive health care to every person as a human right? Or do we maintain a system that is enormously expensive, wasteful and bureaucratic, and is designed to maximize profits for big insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, Wall Street and medical equipment suppliers?" unquote.
Under Sanders’ legislation, all children under 18 and all adults 55 and older would qualify for Medicare during the program’s first year. The remainder of adults would be phased in over four years, until everyone is covered by Medicare. Fifteen senators have so far signed on as co-sponsors, including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, California Senator Kamala Harris. This is Senator Sanders speaking at the People’s Summit in Chicago in July.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Think back five years ago. There was, at that point, widespread belief that the Affordable Care Act, so-called Obamacare, was about as far as we could go as a nation in healthcare. That’s about it. Past Obamacare, can’t do any more. Today, as you know, that view is radically changing. Nurses, thank you for your help on this. Today, all over our country, the American people understand that there is something profoundly wrong when we remain the only major country on Earth not to guarantee healthcare to all people as a right, not a privilege. And there is also something profoundly wrong when millions of Americans cannot afford the prescription drugs that their doctors prescribe. And what the American people from coast to coast are catching onto is the function of healthcare is to provide quality care to all people, not to make billions in profits for the insurance companies or the drug companies.
AMY GOODMAN: The introduction of the Medicare for All Act comes after Republicans repeatedly failed to push through their legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The Republicans’ efforts sparked sustained grassroots protests, led by disability activists and healthcare professionals.
For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Michael Lighty, director of public policy for National Nurses United and the California Nurses Association. National Nurses United has long advocated for a Medicare-for-all system.
Michael, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about what has happened just in the last two weeks, from zero senators co-sponsoring to—what are we at now? Fifteen and counting?
MICHAEL LIGHTY: Fifteen and counting, Amy. And it’s a beautiful day. It’s an exciting day for this movement to guarantee healthcare for all. We have literally seen, in the last two weeks, the ascension of this movement for improved Medicare for all. It’s something we haven’t really seen, even going back to the Hillarycare days, where this groundswell is organic. It’s a prairie fire across the country. We’ve seen, just one example, 2 million impressions on Twitter on RoseAnn DeMoro, our executive director’s demand for these senators to sign on to Senator Sanders’ bill. So, this groundswell—we had town halls in California this week. We’ve had hundreds of people come out demanding this reform. It is extraordinarily popular.
And I think we have overcome an amazing amount. The political establishment on the Democratic side, and certainly on the Republican side, did not want this to happen, and yet here we are. And it reflects the fact that Medicare for all, an improved Medicare for all, is more popular than the Affordable Care Act and more popular than the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. It works. Medicare works. And so, here we are. I think it’s really an amazing day. Americans should have a lot of hope, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to just who is supporting this. Senator Sanders introduced single-payer healthcare three times before. This is the first time he’s had any co-sponsors. California Senator Kamala Harris was the first to sign on. That seemed to break the ice. And at last count, 15 Senate Democrats co-sponsored, including New Jersey’s Cory Booker, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Al Franken of Minnesota, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. However, Democratic leadership has yet to jump on board. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have both declined to support the bill. So, talk about the significance and whether it matters whether the leadership leads or simply follows and gets on board if it gets support.
MICHAEL LIGHTY: Well, I think what’s extraordinary is that the majority of the Democratic caucus in the House has signed on to HR 676. Seventy percent of Minority Leader Pelosi’s constituents support improved Medicare for all. I think she just doesn’t get it. The only way to maintain the gains of the Affordable Care Act is to extend and build on that foundation by eliminating the insurance company premiums, deductibles and copays, and really guarantee healthcare for all through the Medicare system. That and the fact that she hasn’t signed on yet, I think it’s a matter of time.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Michael Lighty, lay out what you understand—and have you spoken to Bernie Sanders?—what you understand he’s doing today, what exactly this bill calls for.
MICHAEL LIGHTY: Well, this bill calls for a system where we literally take the healthcare industry model of revenue and profit and transform our healthcare into a system based on the morality of caregiving. And that is a fundamental difference, where, as he said in the clip that you showed, Amy, these healthcare players—the pharmaceutical companies, the insurance companies, hospital corporations, medical device manufacturers and, behind them all, Wall Street—are profiting on human suffering. And that is going to end, because we’re going to guarantee healthcare regardless of one’s ability to pay. Yes, everyone contributes, but the patient care that you get will be based upon what you need, not what you can afford. And that’s a fundamental transformation in the healthcare system in this country. And people are desperate for that security. Frankly, a third of the country or more has deductibles of greater than $2,000 a year. This bill eliminates that. The cost sharing that’s endemic to Medicare will be gone. And those are barriers to care. The insurance companies looking over your shoulder, if you’re a doctor or a nurse, when you’re caring for a patient or deciding how long they should stay in the hospital, that’s gone, that kind of interference. Doctors and nurses put in charge of healthcare, patients getting the care they need, people having real health security, that’s what Senator Sanders is doing today.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the phasing in. I mean, we’re talking about Medicare for all, the idea that this extremely popular program of people 65 years and older have Medicare, just dropping that age to zero to include the entire population. But it’s not happening all at once.
MICHAEL LIGHTY: Well, it is important to recognize that part of the issue within healthcare is that we have a lot of people concentrated in Medicare who, of course, need a lot of services. So it’s a very good idea to include young people, who have less intense healthcare needs. So, putting zero—that is, at birth—to 18-year-olds in the plan is a really good thing to kind of stabilize the system initially, and then also cover those who are 55 and older. Those are the ones with the greatest need, who have the hardest time finding insurance that can actually cover what they need as healthcare. So those two things make sense. And that’s a huge chunk of the population. Then, when you get to between 18 and 55, you’re really dealing with the employer-based insurance system. And it’s appropriate to take some time to unwind that. We hear a lot about how invested people are or how complicated that might be. I don’t think it’s necessarily complicated, but it does take some time to unwind that system, that has been the basis of healthcare since World War II. So I think a few years to do that is perfectly reasonable.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to President Trump speaking about healthcare in July during a lunch with Senate Republicans.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have no Democrat help. They’re obstructionists. That’s all they’re good at, is obstruction. They have no ideas. They’ve gone so far left, they’re looking for single payer. That’s what they want. But single payer will bankrupt our country, because it’s more than we take in, for just healthcare. So single payer is never going to work. But that’s what they’d like to do. They have no idea what the consequence will be. And it will be horrible, horrible healthcare, where you wait on line for weeks to even see a doctor.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Lighty, your response? Michael, your response? We’re talking to Michael Lighty, director of public policy for the National Nurses United and the California Nurses Association. I’m going to give it one more try to see if Michael can hear us. Michael, can you hear me?
MICHAEL LIGHTY: Yes, I can. Sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to President Trump?
MICHAEL LIGHTY: I can hear you, Amy, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to President Trump? We’ll go to break. We’ll come back to you. Michael Lighty is—
MICHAEL LIGHTY: Well, respond to President Trump—
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, to respond to what he’s saying.
MICHAEL LIGHTY: Basically, President Trump has said he likes Australia. Well, this is very similar to the Australian system—no cost sharing, guaranteed healthcare for all, elimination of the role of the insurance companies. So, this is something that, in fact, President Trump should welcome. This is not the Affordable Care Act. This is not something that we’ve, obviously, instituted before, so it’s an opportunity for him to do something actually positive for the country and for everyone, as a whole. So I think that the—really, the opportunity here is to bring folks together. This is a publicly financed, privately delivered reform that actually represents kind of the best of what we can bring to this issue, because we’re going to be putting doctors and nurses in charge. That’s what we hear from the right all the time: We need doctors and nurses, clinicians in charge, and we need patient-centered care. Well, this is exactly it. This is the kind of great healthcare system that we could create in the U.S.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Lighty, I want to thank you for being with us. Of course, we’ll follow up on this tomorrow, because Senator Bernie Sanders, the former presidential candidate, is introducing Medicare for all today, at least expected to. A couple of weeks ago, as usual, he had no co-sponsors. He’s introduced it a few times before. But today, just in the last few weeks, begun with Kamala Harris, the senator from California, one after another, Democratic senators signed on. And at last count, it’s 15 Democratic senators supporting the Medicare-for-all bill. Michael Lighty, director of public policy for National Nurses United and the California Nurses Association, thanks so much for joining us.
When we come back, the second meeting of the so-called election integrity commission takes place at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. We’ll get the latest. Stay with us.
This interview and transcript originally appeared on democracynow.org on September 13, 2017.