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Some Democrats Aren’t Giving Up on Universal Health Care

Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult

Democrats should push for universal health coverage ahead of the November election, several health care advocates urged the committee drafting the Democratic National Committee’s platform at a recent session focused on health policy.

Their liberal health care proposals echo a similar theme from an environment-themed session the same day, in which activists criticized DNC members for not pushing harder on climate change.

The hearing was part of a series of regional events held by the Democratic Platform Drafting Committee “designed to engage every voice in the party.”

Too many people are still uninsured six years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, said many of the advocates who spoke before the committee in Phoenix on Friday. Still more are underinsured, they said, and people are struggling to pay for rising premiums and to afford prescription drugs.

While most of the witnesses speaking to the platform committee acknowledged the Affordable Care Act as a step forward toward ensuring health coverage for more people, some fault lines appeared among the party. Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pointed out the shortfalls of the law, suggesting that it gets in the way of a single-payer system. Sanders hasn’t yet officially conceded the presidential primary race in his pursuit of influencing the party’s platform,

“It’s a national disgrace that we don’t provide health care for everyone,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, director of National Nurses United, which endorsed Sanders.

The Department of Health and Human Services says the ACA expanded health coverage to roughly 20 million Americans. The uninsurance rate fell to 9.1 percent last year, according to the National Health Interview Survey, though millions are still without coverage.

More than 50 percent of Americans now favor a single-payer health care system, DeMoro said. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in December put that figure at 58 percent.

The current system, as an industry, isn’t fixable, she argued. “It’s very difficult to take a system that has profit in it, and this is what we find in the ACA, where so much money is taken out of the system and then think that we’re going to be able to resolve that piecemeal,” she said.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a member of the drafting committee, said Democrats in Congress fought hard for a single payer or public option system while crafting the health law. They lost that fight because of Republican and industry pushback. States now have the option of adopting their own single-payer system if they choose. Coloradans will vote on such a ballot initiative in November.

Single-payer health care is the most effective route to universal coverage, argued Stephanie Woolhandler, co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program. Government spending on health programs would initially rise, but it would later be offset by a reduction in premiums and out-of-pocket costs, she said. A Medicare buy-in or public option wouldn’t work as effectively because the system would not realize the same administrative and drug-cost savings available through a single-payer system.

“I think we, like the nurses, feel you just can’t pretend we’ve solved the problem here with the Affordable Care Act,” Woolhandler said. “What we have now is not a solution. We still have people dying. We still have people not getting care.”

Drug costs, which have come under significant political pressure in this election cycle, were another focus of the witnesses speaking to the drafting committee. Patients need relief from rising drug costs more quickly than the ACA is allowing, said Daniel Martinez, president of AARP Arizona. He wants to require drugmakers to explain how they are pricing products and create a new tax credit for people that are providing health care to relatives.

Kitty Kennedy, of the Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans, suggested that allowing safe importation of drugs from abroad could make it easier for Americans to afford prescription drugs. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, supports that idea. Oddly enough, that idea has also been floated by presumptive GOP nominee, Donald Trump.