Nurses union, allies unveil national push for Medicare for All
National Nurses United

WASHINGTON—Armed with election victories by Democratic U.S. House candidates, plus opinion polls backing its cause, National Nurses United (NNU) marshalled thousands of volunteers in a mass phone call to start a national campaign for Medicare for All.

The campaign will culminate with a week of lobbying on Capitol Hill, Feb. 9-13, NNU organizers told the thousands on the Nov. 13 phone-in. Before that, individual NNU members and their allies committed to organize town hall meetings with 15 key House Democrats whose two committees will handle the legislation.

Targets of those meetings will include presumed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Reps. Richard Neal, D-Mass., John Larson, D-Conn., Ron Kind, D-Wis., Terri Sewell, D-Ala., and Suzan Del Bene, D-Wash. Neal will chair the Ways and Means Committee – which has primary responsibility for writing Medicare, Social Security and tax laws – and the other four are on it.

The 15 are among House Democrats who have yet to sign on to Medicare for All, a key cause of NNU, Sanders – who elevated it to national prominence during his narrow 2016 Democratic presidential primary loss to Hillary Clinton – Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the Medicare for All Congressional Caucus, and other progressive groups. The AFL-CIO also strongly endorsed Medicare for All at its convention last year.

Medicare for All, also known as single-payer government-run health insurance, would expand Medicare, the successful and popular health care program for the elderly, to cover virtually the entire country. Medicare’s current structure sees the program, funded by payroll taxes, pay for care to doctors and hospitals.

Medicare for All, its advocates contend, would omit private insurers, their high co-pays, huge deductibles and enormous profits. That makes it not on a moral issue, but a financial one, saving workers, businesses and consumers billions of dollars they shell out now, Sanders said.

In the conference call, Sanders and Jayapal stressed those same themes. Sanders reiterated that Medicare for All would also bring the U.S. in line with other developed nations worldwide. “It’s not a radical idea to say health care should be a right for all, not just for the wealthy,” Jayapal added.

The objective is to force hearings and then votes, both in committees and on the Democratic-run House floor, on HR676, an improved and stronger Medicare for All bill, to be pushed by the now-77-lawmaker Medicare for All Caucus, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and their allies inside and outside Congress, said the House measure’s new lead sponsor, progressive Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. House passage, if it occurs, will force the GOP-run Senate’s hand.

“It is beyond obscene that 30 million people don’t have health care in this country, and millions more have insurance that doesn’t cover enough” when they get sick, said Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., the longtime sole senatorial champion of single-payer government-run Medicare for All. “As a result, thousands of people die” needlessly “every year,” he declared.

“The American people are catching on to that reality” and demand is increasing for Medicare for All, Sanders declared.

“Ordinary Americans understand this situation is profoundly absurd, or that it’s absurd that one-fifth of all Americans get a prescription and cannot afford to pay for it while the drug companies earn $50 billion a year in profits.”

But the fight will not be easy, NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN, warned the thousands of members and volunteers who phoned in. Political “leaders rarely do anything until they’re pushed to do it,” she conceded.

And Big Pharma and the insurance industry are already plotting a multi-billion-dollar disinformation campaign against Medicare for All, including statements – which speakers said are lies – to seniors saying Medicare for All would “destroy” regular Medicare.

The Medicare for All foes also set up a campaign finance committee to garner millions of dollars for their drive, she said. A recent referendum campaign in California, NNU’s home state, signaled the size of the resources the health care industry could throw into the fight.

There, kidney dialysis firms alone spent $115 million to convince voters to defeat a Service Employees-backed initiative that would have forced kidney clinics to return hundreds of millions of dollars in excess profits, gained through overcharging patients $1,000+ for each treatment. The dialysis firms and clinics charge insurers only $250 per treatment.

Against that type of well-financed special interest lobbying, ads and lies, NNU intends to mass people, in planned crowd sessions in solons’ home districts and in the lobbying in February. And they held a special orientation for new lawmakers, sponsored by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, on Nov. 13.

One of the 15 key lawmakers, Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, D-Mass., is already starting to come around following visits organized by the Massachusetts Nurses Association-NNU and two mass meetings in his Boston-area district, said Kelly Cubin-Gees, the union’s assistant director of public advocacy. Kennedy is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the other panel that will handle Medicare for All legislation, as well as other health care bills.

The congressional leaders said they would roll out an improved Medicare for All bill, including a more-detailed payment mechanism and coverage of dental, vision and hearing care, just after the new Congress convenes on Jan. 3.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.

Jayapal noted Democrats running in swing districts, which are the ones that gave Democrats the House majority for the first time since 2010, espoused Medicare for All. Not all did so, however. The NNU’s campaign will also target those, said Castillo. “When we have that majority, we have to put it to use,” Jayapal said.

“I’ll work inside, but there will have to be an inside-outside strategy,” she said. The phone-in resulted in thousands of commitments to host such Medicare for All sessions in congressional districts nationwide, as well as commitments for the February drive.

“There should not be one excuse for any Democrat in the House not to support Medicare for All,” Castillo told the thousands on the conference call. Lawmakers “have the best health care anybody can buy” at taxpayers’ expense “and everybody should have it.”

Jayapal added the pro-Medicare for All legions should not rule out lobbying Republicans, especially those who are recent war veterans. They’re familiar with a government-run health-care-for-all system, she noted: The Veterans Administration’s medical centers. And despite a right-wing campaign to trash and privatize the VA hospitals, using scare stories and propaganda, vets love their care.

“For those folks who lacked the intestinal fortitude” to back Medicare for All because of GOP House control, “we’ve taken away their excuse” when the election delivered a majority to the Democrats, said former Ohio State Sen. Nina Turner, now executive director of Our Revolution, another of the groups on the conference call.

Still, other speakers warned, some of the more-queasy Dems need work, as they search for corporate contributions for their re-election campaigns in 2020. They would be open to the blandishments of Big Pharma and the insurers, speakers said.

Citizen action must overcome that, the Medicare for All advocates declared. Quoting the late South African liberation leader Nelson Mandela, Turner said of their cause: “It always seems impossible – until it is done.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.