First major 'Medicare for All' hearing sharpens attacks on both sides

First major 'Medicare for All' hearing sharpens attacks on both sides
© Greg Nash

Supporters of “Medicare for All” notched a victory Wednesday when one of Congress’s most powerful committees debated the progressive proposal, but the venue also gave Republicans an opportunity to paint proponents as socialists.

Democrats and Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee were at odds with each other, and at times with the lively audience of Medicare for All advocates, over how to pay for a program that’s estimated to cost in the tens of trillions of dollars.

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It was the first time a congressional committee with jurisdiction over health care issues has held a hearing on the proposal, following two events hosted by the Rules and the Budget committees earlier this year.

“This is a historic step in the process of recognizing health care as a human right,” said Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarBiden narrowly ahead in Iowa as Sanders surges, Warren drops: poll Sanders, Omar to hit campaign trail in New Hampshire House approves two-state resolution in implicit rebuke of Trump MORE (D-Minn.), co-chair of the House’s Medicare for All Caucus, at a press conference.

The hearing was mostly partisan and light on substance, with members using their allotted time to rail for or against the proposal instead of questioning the panel of health care experts and advocates at the witness table.

While Democrats are divided over the issue, they focused their collective fire on Republicans, accusing them of using “scare tactics” to fight back against any government expansion of health care.

“Today’s Republican condemnation of Medicare for All continues a great Republican tradition of opposing Medicare for anyone,” said Rep. Lloyd DoggettLloyd Alton DoggettProgressive leader warns members could vote no on drug price bill as it stands White House talking new tax cuts with GOP On The Money: Lawmakers hammer Zuckerberg over Facebook controversies | GOP chair expects another funding stopgap | Senate rejects Dem measure on SALT deduction cap workarounds MORE (D-Texas), prompting both applause and laughter from the audience.

GOP lawmakers zeroed in on Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — House panel unveils rival fix for surprise medical bills | Democrats punt vote on youth vaping bill | Pelosi drug bill poised for passage after deal with progressives Comey, Schiff to be interviewed by Fox's Chris Wallace Pelosi reaches deal with progressives to avert showdown over drug price bill MORE’s (D-Wash.) Medicare for All bill, which has 112 co-sponsors in the House.

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Republicans compared her measure to failed universal health care systems in countries like Romania, warning that single-payer would hurt children and seniors.

“We will not stand by and let Democrats seize your health care, your choice, and your control over life-and-death health decisions under Medicare for All,” said Rep. Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyExpiring tax breaks set off year-end scramble Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — House panel unveils rival fix for surprise medical bills | Democrats punt vote on youth vaping bill | Pelosi drug bill poised for passage after deal with progressives Ways and Means Committee announces rival surprise medical billing fix MORE (R-Texas), the ranking member on the committee.

"When you pull the curtain back on Medicare for All, the truth is staring at you: Many Americans will pay more, wait longer for health care, and get worse care than you receive now,” he added.

Jayapal, who sat in the front row of the audience with a sour look on her face during Brady’s testimony, at one point commented, “Wow.”

“I have never heard a ranking member’s statement that was filled with not a single truth,” she later told reporters.

Wednesday’s event also highlighted the fact that the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has the most control over health care issues, has not held a hearing on Medicare for All.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Deal on surprise medical bills faces obstacles | House GOP unveils rival drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote | Justices to hear case over billions in ObamaCare payments Obstacles remain for deal on surprise medical bills This week: House impeachment inquiry hits crucial stretch MORE (D-N.J.) has instead focused his committee’s work on strengthening the Affordable Care Act and lowering health care and prescription drug costs.

Jayapal told The Hill she will start conversations with Pallone “soon” about holding a hearing.

The hearing was more lively than the previous two Medicare for All hearings, with Committee Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealExpiring tax breaks set off year-end scramble Ways and Means Committee announces rival surprise medical billing fix House panel votes to temporarily repeal SALT deduction cap MORE (D-Mass.) admonishing the applauding and hollering audience several times.

At one point, a protester stood up to point and shout at Rep. Mike KellyGeorge (Mike) Joseph KellyAlcohol industry races to save tax break by year-end deadline Democrats ramp up oversight efforts over 'opportunity zone' incentive Genetic counselors save health care dollars when involved in the testing process MORE (R-Pa.) for referring to Medicare for All proposals as an expansion of red tape and bureaucracy.

“You’re beholden to corporate interests!” the protester shouted. “You only care about money!”

As the protester was led out of the room, Kelly said the health care debate “brings out the best and worst in people.”

Medicare for All proponents aren’t just pressuring Republicans, they’re also calling on Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats seek leverage for trial The Memo: Pelosi-Trump trade deal provokes debate on left MORE (D-Calif.) to allow a floor vote on the measure.

Supporters argue that Democratic leaders should be taking the proposal seriously given the number of backers in the 2020 field of presidential contenders.

Several Democrats running for president have backed the Senate version of Medicare for All sponsored by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 The Memo: Pelosi-Trump trade deal provokes debate on left MORE (I-Vt.), a White House hopeful.

But not all Democratic candidates back the proposal, and that intraparty division was evident at Wednesday’s hearing as well.

While the Ways and Means Committee includes many Democratic co-sponsors of Jayapal’s bill, including Reps. John LewisJohn LewisIsakson talks up bipartisanship in Senate farewell speech Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny Democrats ramp up oversight efforts over 'opportunity zone' incentive MORE (Ga.), Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerLobbying world Hillicon Valley: Progressives oppose funding bill over surveillance authority | Senators call for 5G security coordinator | Facebook gets questions over location tracking | Louisiana hit by ransomware attack Progressives oppose spending stopgap measure over surveillance authority extension MORE (Ore.) and Linda Sánchez (Calif.), others like Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellHouse panel votes to temporarily repeal SALT deduction cap On The Money: Pelosi, Trump tout deal on new NAFTA | McConnell says no trade vote until impeachment trial wraps up | Lawmakers push spending deadline to Thursday House panel to consider temporarily repealing SALT deduction cap MORE (D-N.J.) would rather focus on adding a public insurance option via the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to compete with private insurance companies.

“The ACA subsidies could have been greater and we should have included a public option,” Pascrell said during the hearing. “Those two priorities, for me, must be on our agenda.”