Margolis: Sanders’ single payer, fringe or mainstream?

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a co-sponsor of the Medicare-for-all bill. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.

That was an impressive event starring Sen. Bernie Sanders last week, reflecting impressive political progress for him and his allies.

Just a couple of years ago, Sanders couldn’t get a single co-sponsor on a bill to create a “Medicare-for-all” single payer health care system.

Now he has at least 15, including Vermont colleague Patrick Leahy. Over in the House of Representatives, Vermont’s Peter Welch and more than half the Democratic Caucus favor it.

Was it just yesterday that this single-payer health care business was little more than a fantasy of the left-most sliver of the body politic?

No, but it was only a couple of years ago, before Sanders began his unlikely run for the Democratic presidential nomination. He didn’t get it, but he got his points across. Some were enthusiastically received, none more than his declaration that “health care is a human right,” which should be provided to everyone.

Thanks to Sanders (and to Donald Trump?) universal health care has moved from the fringe to the mainstream. Two years ago, a Democrat who endorsed the idea risked ridicule. Today Democrats who hesitate to endorse it risk losing their bona fides as progressives. Sanders and his allies have gotten a great deal of what they wanted.

It’s time for them to beware.

Not because there is anything inherently wrong with Medicare-for-all: a universal, government-run, single-payer health care system. That’s how most democracies finance health care, spending less than the United States, and ending up at least as healthy.

But whatever the merits (or flaws) of Medicare-for-all may be, getting to it can be politically treacherous. In this country, messing with the health care system is bad for a political party’s health. It sickened the Democrats under Bill Clinton when they failed to change it, and weakened them under Barak Obama when they succeeded. Then it enfeebled the Republicans this year when they tried to reverse Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which got popular only when it was in peril.

Why would Democrats now think they can re-enter this thicket and emerge unscathed?

Especially because there are some truth-in-advertising problems with Sanders latest version of Medicare-for-all. What he has proposed is Medicare cubed, or perhaps to the 10th power. It would cover far more services than Medicare does, at a lower cost (effectively zero) to the patient.

To pay for all this, as Sanders acknowledged, taxes will have to go up. Whose and by how much his proposal does not say. It does not say anything about how it would finance itself.

This is neither all that unusual nor grounds for dismissing the bill’s potential benefits. Members of Congress often propose legislation intended to start a discussion, not to be passed as written.

Still, the absence of any financing apparatus in the legislation provides opponents with ammunition to call it unrealistic. And the acknowledgement that taxes would have to rise is politically treacherous. Voters do not like tax increases.

Vermonters especially should know that. What scuttled former Gov. Peter Shumlin’s dream of statewide universal health care was the intolerable tax increase that would have been required to pay for it. Creating a single-payer system for the whole country may be less complicated than doing so for one state; the federal government controls its currency and has infinitely greater resources. Still, the system would have to be financed, and people would have to be convinced that financing it would not cost them more than it would help them.

Not an easy task. Half of the American people (and more than half of the voters) get their health insurance through work (theirs, their spouse’s, their parent’s, whatever). They don’t all love it; they complain about the cost, the paperwork, the limitations. But by all indications most of them like it well enough. They are likely to resist efforts to replace it, which is what Sanders’ Medicare-for-all would do.

Sanders, arguing that the present system was “not designed to provide quality care to all in a cost-effective way, but to provide huge profits to the medical-industrial complex,” claims that people would pay less under his plan, that any tax hikes would be more than offset by eliminating insurance premiums and out-of-pocket payments.

Maybe, but it’s a tough sell. As Sanders noted, that “medical-industrial complex” will spend big bucks to convince voters that Medicare-for-all will hurt them. In this effort, scruples are not likely to be a major factor. Remember Harry and Louise, the stars of the multi-million-dollar ad campaign created by the health insurance industry in 1993 to defeat President Clinton’s universal health insurance plan. Reasonable people can debate whether those ads were merely misleading or downright dishonest. No one can doubt that they were effective.

That’s because of what the psychologists and economists call “loss aversion.” For most people, the pain of losing a five dollar bill is stronger than the joy of finding one, and scaring people about the possibility that things could get worse is often easier than convincing them that things can get better.

Bernie Sanders and his Medicare-for-all allies offer hope. Their opponents will raise the specter of fear. In that contest, fear usually wins.

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Jon Margolis

About Jon

Jon Margolis is VTDigger's columnist. He is the author of The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964, left the Chicago Tribune early in 1995 after 23 years as Washington correspondent, sports writer, correspondent-at-large and general columnist. Margolis spent most of his Tribune years in the Washington Bureau as the newspaper’s chief national political correspondent. In 1988, he was a one of the journalists asking questions of Senators Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle in their televised vice presidential debate. Before joining the Tribune in 1973, Margolis had been the Albany Bureau Chief for Newsday. He was the first reporter on the scene of the Attica prison rebellion in 1971, and spent the entire first night inside the prisoner-held “D” yard. Earlier, Margolis was a reporter for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J.; the Miami Herald and the Concord Monitor (N.H.). In addition to The Last Innocent Year, published by William Morrow in 1999, he is the author of How To Fool Fish With Feathers: An Incompleat Guide to Fly Fishing (Simon and Schuster, 1991) and The Quotable Bob Dole — Witty, Wise and Otherwise, (Avon Books, 1995). He also wrote two chapters of Howard Dean: A citizens Guide to the Man Who Would be President (Steerforth, 2003). A native of New Jersey, Margolis graduated from Oberlin College in 1962. He served in the US Army.

Email: [email protected]

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