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 OmarTexas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill Undocumented aliens should stay away as COVID-19 rages in the US The Southern Poverty Law Center and yesterday's wars 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 DoggettTexas lawmakers call for investigation into CDC's handling of released coronavirus patient in San Antonio Ocasio-Cortez knocks Pence: 'Utterly irresponsible to put him in charge of US coronavirus response' Pelosi trashes Trump address: 'He shredded the truth, so I shredded his speech' MORE (D-Texas), prompting both applause and laughter from the audience.

GOP lawmakers zeroed in on Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalPelosi says House will review Senate coronavirus stimulus package Critical supplies shortage hampers hospitals, health providers Washington state lawmakers warn health workers running low on protective gear 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 BradyPelosi not invited by Trump to White House coronavirus relief bill's signing Democrat refuses to yield House floor, underscoring tensions on coronavirus vote Democratic leaders say trillion stimulus will pass House on Friday 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 NealJudge puts new hold on Democrats' lawsuit seeking Trump tax returns MA lawmakers press HHS secretary on status of state's protective equipment Senators offer bill to extend tax filing deadline 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 Kelly16 things to know for today about coronavirus Lysol, disinfecting wipes and face masks mark coronavirus vote in House Coronavirus in Congress: Lawmakers who have tested positive 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 PelosiDC argues it is shortchanged by coronavirus relief bill Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — US coronavirus cases hit 100,000 | Trump signs T stimulus package | Trump employs defense powers to force GM to make ventilators | New concerns over virus testing Hillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike 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 SandersHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Overnight Energy: Court upholds Trump repeal of Obama fracking rule | Oil price drop threatens fracking boom | EPA eases rules on gasoline sales amid coronavirus The Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders pushes on in 2020 race 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 LewisGeorgia makes it easier to get mail-in ballots after delaying primary Kennedy said DSCC prevented him from helping Democrats flip GOP seats Pelosi stands firm amid calls to close Capitol MORE (Ga.), Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerSenators urge Congress to include election funds in coronavirus stimulus Vote at home saves our democracy and saves lives House committee advances medical marijuana bills for veterans MORE (Ore.) and Linda Sánchez (Calif.), others like Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellHispanic Caucus campaign arm unveils non-Hispanic endorsements Biden rolls out over a dozen congressional endorsements after latest primary wins Juan Williams: Will the GOP ever curb Trump? 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.”