MONTPELIER — Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced his long-awaited Medicare-for-all legislation Wednesday, touting the support of 16 Democratic senators who signed on as co-sponsors, but plenty of crucial questions remain unanswered, including the cost.
The support of one-third of the Democratic caucus in the Senate is a significant improvement for Sanders, who stood alone the last time he introduced a single-payer health care system in 2013. It reflects how Sanders, an independent, is shaping the future of the Democratic Party following his improbable run for the presidency in the Democratic Primary last year.
The line-up of cosponsors includes a handful of senators pundits have eyed as potential Democratic presidential candidates in 2020, including Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
The bill Sanders laid out Wednesday include the broad goals of a generous, government-run health care system for the country. But the legislation notably lacks how much it would cost or how it would be paid for.
“We want to hear from the American people as to the fairest ways that we can fund this program,” Sanders said at launch event in Washington, D.C., flanked by fellow senators and single-payer advocates.
The Sanders plan envisions a four-year transition to a single-payer system. In the first year, those already on Medicare would see the program begin covering dental and vision as well as hearing aids. The age of eligibility for Medicare would also be lowered from 65 to 55, and deductibles for Medicare Parts A, B and D would be eliminated.
During the second year of the transition all children up to age 18 would be eligible to enroll in the so-called Universal Medicare Program. The age of eligibility would also be reduced to 45.
The third year of the transition the age would be lowered again, this time to 35. By the fourth year, all residents of the U.S. would be eligible for the program.
“Today, we begin the long and difficult struggle to end the international disgrace of the United States, our great nation, being the only major country on earth not to guarantee health care to all our people,” Sanders said. “As proud Americans, our job is to lead the world on health care, not woefully lag behind other countries.”
Although the bill does not provide a funding mechanism, or even an estimated cost, Sanders said the average American family “will be much better off financially” under the system he is proposing than under the current health care system.
“You will no longer be writing checks to your private insurance company. While, depending on your income, your taxes may go up to pay for this publicly funded program, that expense will be more than offset by the money you are saving by the elimination of private insurance costs,” he said.
The proposed plan would be exceptionally generous and cover more services than single-payer programs in other countries. Sanders’ plan would cover hospital visits, primary care, medical devices, ambulatory care, lab services, maternity care and prescription drugs, along with vision and dental benefits.
Sanders released his plan after Congress failed in recent months to repeal the federal Affordable Care Act signed into law by former Democratic President Barack Obama. Republican Sens. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana unveiled their own health care bill Wednesday. The bill is seen as another long-shot effort to repeal the law.
Sanders fired back at Republicans for their efforts to repeal the law, saying Republicans “have no credibility on the issue of health care” after voting in favor of plans that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said would cause tens of millions of Americans to lose their coverage.
“To my Republican colleagues, please don’t lecture us on health care. In the last few months, you have shown the American people what you stand for, when you voted for legislation to throw 32 million Americans off of the health insurance they currently have, while giving huge tax breaks to the rich and large corporations. Your credibility on health care is non-existent,” Sanders said.
The Medicare-for-all proposal will not pass in the current political environment. Sanders acknowledged that in an interview with the Vermont Press Bureau last month. He said he plans to create a national campaign to build support for its passage in future years.
The Vermont senator said he plans to build support across the country to help create a political environment in which his legislation can pass. He said Congress will pass such a plan “sooner than people believe.”
“I fully recognize that legislation which deals with one-sixth of our economy and over $3 trillion is complex and that nobody, including those of us who are up here, have all the answers,” he said. “Unlike the Republican leadership, which tried to pass massive and destructive health care reform without one public hearing, our job now is to take this legislation to every state in the country and to hear what the people have to say.”
Democrat Patrick Leahy, a fellow Vermont senator, has signed on as a cosponsor of Sanders’ bill. He said the country must “begin serious conversations about getting to universal coverage and a simplified system.”
Health care is a right, not a privilege, and no American should be unable to receive the treatment that they need,” Leahy said. “I’m proud to support this Vermont-led push to improve on the successes of the Affordable Care Act, and I commend Sen. Sanders for his long leadership on this issue.”
Democratic Rep. Peter Welch, Vermont’s sole member of the House, has been a cosponsor of single-payer legislation every year since being elected in 2006.