Sep 13, 2017, 3:48 PM ET

Democrats continue to line up behind Bernie Sanders' health care bill

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More than a dozen Democratic senators — including several party power players — stood with independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wednesday as co-sponsors of his latest bill for a government-run, single-payer health care system. The rising support among Democrats for Sanders’ sweeping proposal, which would entail a massive overhaul of a major part of the U.S. economy, marks a clear sea change to the left for Democrats.

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“The growing momentum for Medicare for all is a remarkable turnaround for an idea that was deemed too radical to even debate eight years ago. However, it’s really a testament to the political clarity of the policy and the steadfast work Sen. Sanders has put into organizing support for it inside and outside the halls of power,” Charles Chamberlain, a progressive activist and the executive director of Democracy for America, wrote in a statement Tuesday.

As of Wednesday morning, 16 Democratic senators had signed onto the bill, including several more moderate members of the caucus and a number of possible 2020 presidential contenders. A similar bill introduced in the House by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has 117 co-sponsors.

Sanders spokesperson Josh Miller-Lewis told ABC News, “Clearly Democrats are seeing that the vast majority of their constituents and, increasingly, the majority of the American people support single-payer.”

The bill introduced by Sanders today would phase in a universal, government-run health care program over four years. Children up to 18 would be enrolled in Medicare right away, and the minimum eligibility age for the program, which is currently 65 for most people, would decrease over the next few years. By the third year, the Medicare minimum eligibility age would be 35.

“By the fourth year, every individual who is a resident of the United States will be entitled to benefits for comprehensive health care services and will get a Universal Medicare card that they can use to receive the health care they need,” according to Sanders' memo on the bill.

Sanders has been advocating for what he calls a “Medicare for all” health care system for decades, but not one of his Senate colleagues was previously willing to back his legislation. When he made the idea a central part of his presidential campaign, several Democrats, including congressional leaders and the party’s eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton, said the proposal was unrealistic and would be too costly and disruptive to the economy. They accused Sanders of being disloyal to then-President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which has been under attack by Republicans since its introduction.

“The last thing we need is to throw our country into a contentious debate about health care again. We are not England. We are not France,” Clinton said during a presidential debate in February 2016, arguing against Sanders’ plan. “Based on every analysis that I can find by people who are sympathetic to the goal, the numbers don’t add up, and many people will actually be worse off than they are right now.”

Still, Sanders and progressive lawmakers at the local level and in the House have continued to mobilize grass-roots support around the issue after he lost the nomination and Democrats lost the White House. They argue that health care costs remain too high and that Obamacare does not guarantee universal health care coverage. They pushed the Democratic Party to embrace a vision for more socialized health care even as Republicans were voting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and put in place market-driven changes instead.

“Despite the lunatics in the Republican Party, they are not entirely wrong about the [ACA]. It does have serious holes in it,” said Chuck Idelson, the communications director for National Nurses United, a major nurses’ union that was one the first and most committed groups backing Sanders’ bid for the White House.

Idelson added, “Democrats have been recognizing that they lost the last election because they failed to speak to issues that affect people’s daily lives. Nothing affects people’s lives more than their health care.”

A number of progressive political organizations, including the National Nurses United, have effectively made the issue a litmus test for any Democratic candidates seeking their support.

Still, plenty of Democrats are opposed to the bill or at least remain skeptical of the concept. Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, hedged Tuesday when asked about the growing momentum around Sanders’ bill. He said it was one of many ideas among members of the party for achieving universal health care coverage in the country but cautioned that Democrats are still playing quite a lot of “defensive” on the issue.

“We have always believed in universal health care. We are 90 percent of the way there. We are fighting to get the final 10 percent and fighting against a Republican administration that wants to take away a big part of the 90 percent,” Perez told ABC News on Tuesday. “The question is, what is the fastest way to get to 100 percent? ... Different Democrats may have different pathways to get there, and that is the debate that will ensue.”

Idelson speculated that it was easier for Democrats to get on board with the idea of single-payer now, with the GOP controlling Washington, since they do not have much chance of passing or implementing such legislation. Many Democrats, perhaps, have calculated it is better to avoid alienating activists on the left who have been incredibly animated since Donald Trump took office. “But we are going to remind people of [their co-sponsorship]. We are going to remind people that this is really the only solution to the health care crisis,” Idelson added.

Sanders’ team has acknowledged that a Republican-controlled Congress and GOP administration will almost certainly never consider such legislation. Lewis-Miller said the bill was designed as a negotiating tool.

“The bill we are introducing is not going to be the final bill that is signed into law, but it is going to be the beginning of a conversation about what single-payer in the United States would look like,’ Miller-Lewis said.

He was delighted that the proposal has broken through into the mainstream and will be a point of central consideration and debate in Democratic politics.

“[Kirsten] Gillibrand, [Cory] Booker, [Elizabeth] Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders — is there anyone else who is possibly running for president in 2020?” he said, listing some of the heavy hitters in the Senate backing the bill. “It’s amazing … That now will mean that the conversation about single-payer Medicare for all is at the heart of the Democratic Party.”

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  • Tom Hayes

    One last question. If single payer means that we pay the government and the government pays the insurance companies, that implies that the government negotiates those rates with the insurance companies, correct? If that is the case I am not sure that I want the same folks who negotiated the $30,000 toilet seat and $50,000 hammer to have anything to do with my health care.

  • ivar

    No country that has single payer has ever moved to repeal it. Why would they?

  • Linda Drag

    I can't see how the government getting more involved would help. Everyone knows anything run by the government is a mess!

  • mkaaces

    Just another money making scheme for the elitist's.

  • Jrducky

    I believe ol Bernie is using some of Trumps tactics!!
    Tell your followers what they want to hear and keep them riled up about it!!
    Single payer will NOT work!! It sounds like a great idea, but where does the money come from?
    I paid in to Medicare my entire life to be able to use it at retirement. Where does Bernie plan on getting the money to cover 18 year olds?
    Similar to the Trump Wall!!!
    I am a lifelong democrat, but do not believe in the single payer, ever working.
    Think hard fellow Americans!!! Many people were duped by a promise of a Great Wall!!!!

  • Another commenter

    Bet he'll take all of the credit for "introducing" it and none of the blame when it inevitably fails.

  • E Sverdrup

    I think it's a great idea. People are already paying for healthcare + a profit margin + Medicaid + Medicare + VA (the single largest healthcare system in the US) + federal and state employees healthcare. I'm a fiscal conservative and this makes sense.

  • retired too

    All for it, as soon as the real cost is disclosed, the real choices defined and nothing hidden in a 16 story high pile of paper that nobody can understand. Additionally anyone receiving any subsidy should be subject to behavior modifications to improve and make them responsible for their own health. No smoking, drinking hazardous activities with required exercise and diet regimes. Mandatory home visits to ensure compliance and fines for violators. As I said, all for it.

  • boyscout

    If it would be backed and funded properly it might work but if it is just another way through the back door to destroy Medicare that would be very bad. I would have voted for Bernie but to be honest I am no longer sure anyone in government right now is on the right side of things for the people and for the country

  • Another commenter

    Bernie helped elect trump president of the u.s. he'll do anything for recognition without playing with the team. He pulled the Clinton's ideas from 1994 and is presenting them has his own. What a hero.

  • Puthenmadam Radhakrishnan

    The one payor system has shown to be a strong and well participated program. As a provider I would support it whole heartedly. It will remove the schizophrenic system we have now and level the playing field. The hype surrounding the Medicare system is scaring the public, all we have to do is ask the seniors who are its members. They are protected from overcharges. Unfortunately a few providers and vendors are undermining the system by committing fraud, and they do get caught. One day level headed legislators will see the light at the end of the tunnel.

  • srichey321

    Just a matter of time.

  • wd65

    It's about time we join the rest of the civilized world and have insurance for all.

  • Sixty6

    Does medicare for "all" mean that "all" will pay for it?

  • Where's the Revolution

    The Corporate Dems don't want single payer, they just want Bernie supporters' votes. They will shaft him again and rig the primary for Kamala Harris in 2020.