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'Medicare for All' backers notch win with high-profile hearing

The Hill logo The Hill 12/10/2019 Jessie Hellmann
a man holding a sign: 'Medicare for All' backers notch win with high-profile hearing © Greg Nash 'Medicare for All' backers notch win with high-profile hearing

"Medicare for All" supporters scored a victory Tuesday with a long-awaited hearing in one of the House's most powerful committees, putting more focus on the health care proposal that has divided the field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.

The Energy and Commerce Committee discussed the single-payer health plan backed by White House hopefuls Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) after a sustained campaign led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and other members of the party's liberal wing.

Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), whose committee has primary jurisdiction over health care issues, included eight other bills that aim to achieve universal coverage as part of Tuesday's hearing, stealing some of Medicare for All's spotlight.

Jayapal nonetheless touted the "historic" hearing as a success, even as polls show support for the proposal is waning.

"Our movement is alive and well," she told The Hill on Tuesday. "We're just continuing to bring more and more people on board, and we'll have more hearings, but these are substantive discussions, which is what really excites me."

Medicare for All previously received hearings in the Ways and Means, Education and Labor, and Budget committees.

The tone of Tuesday's hearing, which took place in a small, outdated committee room, underscored the balancing act facing Democratic leaders, who want to show they are taking progressives seriously while appeasing more moderate members who support other approaches to achieving universal health care.

It also showcased the debate in the party over how to reform a health care system where 27 million people are uninsured, even after the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) known as ObamaCare.

Pallone, an ally of Democratic leadership who is skeptical of Medicare for All, said the best way to cover everyone is by improving and expanding the ACA, former President Obama's signature legislative achievement.

"I believe that we must continue to build on the success of the ACA until health care is truly a right for all Americans," Pallone said during the hearing, adding that he believes the U.S. would be close to universal coverage today if ObamaCare had included a public option to compete with private insurers.

The public option, which was viewed as being too far left in 2010, is now endorsed by moderate Democrats like former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg as a more pragmatic alternative to Medicare for All, a government-funded health care system that would provide coverage for everyone.

House Democrats have largely avoided attacking each other over Medicare for All, in part because the legislation is not expected to receive a floor vote.

Among the nine health care proposals debated Tuesday was a bill sponsored by Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) that would let people age 50 and older buy Medicare plans while increasing insurance subsidies for ObamaCare plans.

Another measure, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) and Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), would create a new health care system but preserve private insurance for those who want it.

"As we debate into the future on universal health care coverage, in my view, 'Medicare for America' is the best way forward in providing historic change," DeLauro told the committee.

But Jayapal's Medicare for All bill has the most co-sponsors - 119, more than half of the Democratic caucus - of the measures debated.

Republicans, meanwhile, opposed all of the Democratic proposals, arguing they would eventually lead to Medicare for All and eliminate private insurance.

"These plans ration care and deny life-saving treatments. Importing foreign heath care systems to the U.S. runs counter to our shared goal of expanding access to the latest cures and improving access to lifesaving therapies," said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the committee's ranking member.

Republicans have been eager to use Medicare for All as a way to paint Democrats as moving too far left for the American public.

While support for Medicare for All is higher than it has been in previous years, recent polls show it has struggled to maintain its popularity. More voters support measures that would shore up the ACA and establish a public option.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll in November, 53 percent said they supported Medicare for All, compared to 56 percent who said the same in March. The same poll sound that 66 percent of respondents last month supported a public option.

Medicare for All supporters have blamed that drop in support on a well-funded opposition campaign from a coalition of insurers, hospitals and other industry groups.

But the declining popularity could also be tied to the Democratic presidential debates, where White House hopefuls have fought, sometimes bitterly, over Medicare for All and its related costs.

Jayapal said she and other backers are working to shore up support, and she expects to have two more hearings in the House next year.

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