POLITICS

Ady Barkan Rallies Progressives On Biden ― And Universal Coverage

The terminally ill activist told the Democratic National Convention that health care for millions is at stake this November.

Progressive activist Ady Barkan made an emotional pitch for presidential nominee Joe Biden at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night, warning that health care for millions of Americans is at stake in November’s election.

“Even during this terrible crisis, Donald Trump and Republican politicians are trying to take away millions of people’s health insurance,” Barkan said in a speech relayed from his home in California. “We must elect Joe Biden. ... And then, with a compassionate and intelligent president, we must act together and put on his desk a bill that guarantees us all the health care we deserve.”

Barkan is in the advanced stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a degenerative neurological disease that has taken away his mobility and his ability to speak without assistance. In order to address the virtual convention, he used a text-to-voice computer program ― the same technology that he employed more than a year ago when he traveled to Washington to testify before Congress.

The subject that day was “Medicare for All,” a universal coverage proposal that envisions a single government program paying the health bills for every American. At the April 2019 hearing, Barkan offered both a statistical and a personal brief for the idea, describing fights with private insurance companies, ongoing anxiety over high out-of-pocket medical bills and the toll those struggles had taken on his family. 

On Tuesday night, Barkan talked about those struggles again: “I have experienced the ways our health care system is fundamentally broken ― enormous costs, denied claims, dehumanizing treatment when we are most in need.”

But this time Barkan wasn’t making the case for Medicare for All, at least not explicitly. He was making the case for Biden. And while the former vice president has said he supports universal coverage, he has also said he believes enacting Medicare for All would require too dramatic a change ― and too heavy a political lift ― to attempt right away. 

Biden has instead proposed to bolster the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” by making its financial assistance more generous and extending expanded Medicaid coverage for the poor to states that have not expanded it on their own. Biden has said he would also seek to create a new government-run insurance program that would be open to everybody but purely optional ― an approach some analysts describe as Medicare-for-anybody-who-wants-it. 

Although Biden’s proposed scheme would provide much-needed assistance and security to millions of Americans now burdened by medical bills, it would stop well short of Medicare for All’s wholesale transformation of the health care system. Government would not be setting budgets and prices throughout the health care system, private insurance would likely remain the dominant form of coverage, and a significant number of Americans would remain uninsured. 

The debate over Medicare for All was one of the defining fights of the 2020 Democratic primaries, pitting champions like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) against skeptics like Biden. At times, Biden even likened Medicare for All to repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

But since effectively capturing the nomination, Biden has emphasized his commitment to moving toward both universal coverage and a health care system more reliant on government-run insurance, eventually signing off on a party platform that welcomes Medicare for All’s advocates.

That was enough to earn him a warm endorsement from Sanders on Monday night. And on Tuesday, it drew a vote of confidence from Barkan, although the activist’s focus was mostly on the stark choice that voters would face in November.

“With the existential threat of another four years of this president,” Barkan said, “we all have a profound obligation to act ― not only to vote but to make sure that our friends, family and neighbors vote as well.”

Unlike Biden, who has a long record of supporting government action to help people get insurance, President Donald Trump has spent his presidency trying to take coverage away from millions by repealing or undermining the Affordable Care Act. 

The latest of those efforts is a Trump-backed lawsuit, now before the Supreme Court, that calls on the justices to wipe away the law because of a supposed constitutional flaw. The impact of such a ruling would be especially devastating, Barkan noted, at a time when so many people need medical care and are losing coverage because of joblessness.

“In the midst of a pandemic, nearly 100 million Americans do not have sufficient health insurance,” Barkan said. “Even good insurance does not cover essential needs like long-term care ― our loved ones are dying in unsafe nursing homes, our nurses are overwhelmed and unprotected.”

Barkan has made clear that he is not giving up on Medicare for All. On the contrary, he has said his supporters have two tasks in front of them ― making sure Biden beats Trump and then making sure Biden pursues a progressive agenda.

“Obviously, we can’t accomplish anything good with Republicans in control,” Barkan said in a recent interview with Astead W. Herndon of The New York Times. “So I see my role, and the role of the progressive movement, as trying to get more and better Democrats elected to office, and then pushing hard to get them to promote justice and equity when they get there.”