Former Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) explains what he’s learned while fighting for single-payer health care over the past several decades.
Progressives and Bernie Sanders supporters are continuing to lead efforts in support of a single-payer health care system in contrast to Republicans pushing for Obamacare repeal that would increase premiums and relegate millions of Americans to the already 28 million Americans who have no health insurance. The supposition that health care is a human right and should be provided to every American is at the center of this movement, but the Democratic Party leadership has been reluctant to formally co-sponsor a Medicare-for-All bill introduced by Congressman John Conyers. Republicans recently introduced single-payer health care to a vote as a troll to the Democratic Party, poking fun at the proposal why trying to highlight the divisions among Democrats in supporting the policy. The stunt was ignored, and Obamacare repeal efforts floundered in the Senate once again, but the fight for Medicare-for-All continues to gain support and momentum.
“A single payer system is inevitable. That’s the first thing, this is inevitable. But just because something’s inevitable doesn’t mean that it will happen without an effort and that it will happen in time to help the mass of American people who are looking for better options than they have now,” said former Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) in an interview with the author. Kucinich, who served eight terms in Congress from 1997 to 2013, often introduced his own single-payer Medicare-for-All health care bill with Congressman John Conyers while he served in Congress. “When I worked with a number of physicians connected with Harvard to draft a bill, John Conyers and I worked together, he was the prime sponsor. And what I did and this was my roll, I went to the floor of the house and I lobbied members of Congress endlessly, just kept at it day after day after day.” Kucinich managed to get 90 co-sponsors at the time to support the bill. Today, that number has reached 115 Democrats in the House of Representatives co-sponsoring, but leading voices in Congress, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), have abstained from getting behind it.
People don’t want health insurance as much as they want health assurance. The first time I ran for Congress in 1972 I brought this issue forward, mindful of the work that Ted Kennedy was doing at the time. I actually made the foolishly arrogant statement back then that if the American Medical Association, which had supported the person I ran against, if they were really smart they’d make sure that I didn’t get elected that I wouldn’t be their guy, that I would be working for a single-payer system. And of course I basically invited them to come in which they did and drop a lot of money in a campaign that I ended up losing by a little more than 1% at age 25 I might add. So this is an issue that I’ve been close to. But through the years, here’s what I’ve learned. A couple principles. I think the first and most important principle is the government cannot give you health care. It can’t give you health. They can pay the bills but they can’t give you health. And the second thing is that each one of us has to take a measure of responsibility for what we eat, what we drink, the effect if has on ourselves and others. I mean there is an element of personal responsibility here which almost never gets discussed but it needs to be. And the third thing is prevention. The government ought to be investing in prevention. The next thing is that no market-based system of healthcare will survive. It’s impossible. Premiums will continue to escalate, co-pays will go up, exclusions will increase and you’ll end up with only those who are well-off financially being able to pay their bills, but even then the number of health expense bankruptcies will continue to escalate.
He cited that mental health, dental health, vision care, prescription drug costs and the ability for Medicare to negotiate drug prices, and long-term care for the elderly need to be incorporated into discussions on health care and included in a single-payer health care plan. “It’s not difficult to understand that in our modern society, there are many people who are having difficulty coping, whether the incidence of drugs, opioid abuse or alcoholism continues on the rise, or just the everyday stress of life, increasing suicides in certain demographic groups such as very young women and middle-aged men points to a society that’s creating enormous pressure for individuals. And so we have to make part of the guarantees of a health care system full coverage for mental health for all visits,” he said. “Then you go to the issue of dental health which is connected to overall physical health. That has to be part of the guarantee of a national system because you have so many people and it’s well known that the connection between dental health and overall physical health is exact.” Kucinich noted the case of Deamonte Driver in Maryland, a 12-year-old who died from a toothache infection in 2007.
We have a Baby Boomer generation that is going into its elderly years. Some will not be able to care for themselves if they’re lucky enough to approach their late eighties and early nineties. I mean in some quarters, 80 is the new 60. But the truth is unless somebody has living family to help them as they get older, there’s a tremendous burden that’s put on family budgets when someone needs nursing care in their later years. And you think of the dilemma that families face today where everything they’ve ever worked for they have to put on the table to assure care for a loved one. It’s really heartbreaking. So inevitably the best thing they had, they saved up, the home that they live in, family treasures that have commercial value, all those things being capitalized for the sake of paying for nursing care.
Polls have shown the majority of Americans support a single-payer health care system, with recent trends signaling that support is growing. Even so, several Democratic Party elected officials have dismissed or excused the policy platform. “It would not be good to spend our time focusing on what happens a few years from now,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told Vox in an interview. “We’ll have plenty of time to debate what bill we’ll craft once we get control back.” A similar consensus has been expressed from several top Democrats when pressed on the issue.
“We can’t be sitting around worrying about what might happen, we have to make things happen. And if I’ve learned anything about Congress [it] is that there is a paradox of people who are in some of the most powerful positions in our society feel[ing] powerless to deal with these big questions. And yet each member of Congress does have real impact on the long-term health of the country. One of the complicating factors is the amount of money that comes from various interests who are promoting the current system and they try to use that to hold members hostage. But when one considers the broader claims of our constituents, this current system cannot meet the diverse health needs of America,” explained Kucinich. He continued:
And people have to know. I mean, there’s nobody in that Congress that isn’t personally affected by someone in their family who has an illness and the cost of it is extraordinary. Now members do have a pretty good insurance plan, but so should everyone else. Members do have the ability to have access to medical care almost 24/7. So should everyone else. And there was a member from Maryland a few years ago who talked about the effect of changing health care coverage, Donna Edwards, you may have read this story where she has a condition where she needs constant treatment and if she’s separated from that treatment, it’s going to impair her ability to live a quality standard of life.
Though the majority of support for a single-payer health care system has come from Democrats, there has been some support for this type of system from Republicans. Fox News Contributor Charles Krauthammer predicted in May 2017 that the U.S. will have a single-payer system inevitably in seven years. On July 27, the American Conservative published an op-ed arguing a conservative case for a single-payer health care system, noting that it would drastically reduce costs and benefit the economy. Kucinich noted that it’s unsustainable to push for single-payer solely along partisan lines:
One of the things that I want to share with you is an episode where I had a town hall meeting a few years ago. And afterwards, there was a couple who walked out of the meeting saying that they didn’t want government sponsored health care. Now remember the government pays the bills. I’m not talking about the government running hospitals, understand that. Government doesn’t run the hospitals but it pays the bills. So they were saying they didn’t want the government to be involved and one was on a walker, the other one was on a cane and both were pretty seriously overweight and had visible other health problems and were of the age where I assumed that they could be on both Medicare and Medicaid. But they were complaining about government sponsored health care. This ideological divide over health care is something we have to get past in order to protect the health of our nation. This is something that Americans should be uniting on. Disease doesn’t favor Democrats or Republicans and we have to have more independent thinking on this health care matter which isn’t bound by partisanship or financial connections or lobbyists or whatever.
He added, “The partisan approach to health care cannot succeed and people are looking for more independent-minded representatives who are not tied to the inevitable, self-defeating partisan infighting. So that’s all part of yesterday’s approach to governance. We really have to look to the future which is going to be healthy for the American people and that will require some changes in the way members of Congress approach this issue. And I think that’s possible because the one thing that you have to remember is that our system provides for a representative government and the people who are involved at some level do represent their constituents. We can all aspire to represent our constituents in a way that is more effective and I think that will happen.”