House Democrats say they will study the promise or pitfalls of a government-run health system out of the gate, setting the stage for hearings on the marquee idea championed by Sen. Bernard Sanders and outspoken freshmen as the left flexes its new clout.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while taking immediate steps to defend Obamacare in the new Congress, has blessed plans to gather testimony on a government-run program that insures everyone.
House Rules Committee Chairman James P. McGovern said Friday he plans to gather quite soon economists, health care experts and patients for a hearing on “Medicare for all,” an idea he supports.
“We want to do this in a thoughtful way,” said Mr. McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat. “We need to begin this discussion, so I’m looking forward to it.”
Rep. Ro Khanna of California said Democrats have made the moral case for covering everyone. He said the challenge is to convince people that government-run healthcare, or single-payer, is an economic winner, despite its eye-popping price tag of $30-plus trillion.
He said taxpayer funding would supplant “excessive” costs Americans are absorbing for hospital stays, prescription drugs and other services under the current system, while keeping jobs in the U.S. because employers would face lower health care costs.
“It’s not just about the moral issue, it’s about our nation’s competitiveness,” said Mr. Khanna, a vice chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, pointing to high-profile supporters. “Let’s get [billionaire investor] Warren Buffett in here. That would be fantastic.”
The House Budget Committee is planning to hold hearings about new health care options, including single-payer. It’s a push that will pressure the committees with direct oversight over health care to follow suit.
“We’re certainly going to look at it,” Rep. Frank Pallone, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said Friday. “I’m not going to commit to specific hearings.”
The New Jersey Democrat said his first priority will be hearings on climate change and defending the Affordable Care Act against President Trump’s attacks on it, including his refusal to defend the 2010 program against a state-driven lawsuit that could dismantle it.
The two-pronged approach reflects Democrats’ desire to defend Obamacare, which expanded coverage to roughly 20 million people, while devising plans to cover the nearly 30 million left behind by their signature health law.
“Defend and enhance what’s in the ACA, and then move towards Medicare for all,” Mr. Khanna said.
A “Medicare for all” bill by former Rep. John Conyers of Michigan attracted support from two-thirds of the Democratic caucus in the last Congress.
A freshman class of progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is breathing new life into the issue this year.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington is leading efforts to draft the “Medicare for all” legislation. She hailed party leaders’ commitment to hold hearings as a ground-breaking step.
“We’re one step closer to all Americans having access to quality, affordable health care,” Ms. Jayapal tweeted.
Other Democrats say moving beyond Obamacare doesn’t require an all-or-nothing approach.
Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, pointed to a number of states that are considering incremental steps toward universal care, such as letting their uninsured residents “buy in” to Medicaid, the public insurance program for the poor.
“I think a full-throttle discussion about health care in America, specifically, is a good idea,” said the Massachusetts Democrat.
Any plans to expand the reach of taxpayer-funded options come with political risk, however.
Republicans are sharpening their knives over the specter of a “government takeover” of health care, hoping to regain political footing after they failed to repeal Obamacare in 2017.
They have spotlighted fears that people under a single-payer system would lose the private plans they enjoy.
“While we seek cooperation, there is one core principle upon which we will not compromise. Republicans will always choose personal freedom over government control,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said in a speech to start the new Congress on Thursday.
Yet Democrats, sensing a political advantage after a successful midterm campaign, say they’ll try to box in the GOP on health care before stress-testing new ideas.
Mrs. Pelosi announced a Wednesday vote on a resolution that would force Republicans to support or reject her motion to intervene in the lawsuit against Obamacare.
Protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions would be eliminated if the appellate courts uphold a federal ruling out of Texas, which held Obamacare is no longer constitutional because of Congress’ decision to gut its “individual mandate,” the financial penalty for not having insurance.