Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is a full-time senator again, and he wants Democrats to back legislation that would cover health care for all during the coronavirus pandemic.
Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) proposed an emergency version of their signature “Medicare for All” legislation on Friday: the Health Care Emergency Guarantee Act, which would have Medicare reimburse all out-of-pocket costs for both insured and uninsured Americans throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Congress has already passed a bill to make testing for the coronavirus free, and Democrats have also been pushing for coronavirus treatment to be cost-free as well. Even President Donald Trump said the federal government will pay providers for treating uninsured patients. But this plan from Sanders and Jayapal goes significantly further.
The two lawmakers want a federal backstop for the millions of Americans who have lost their health insurance due to unemployment in recent weeks, as well as some financial aid for the potentially high costs of hospitalization and treatment for COVID-19 patients.
“What we are seeing today is the fundamental fallacies of the employer-based health care, and the reason for that is that it is likely, over the two-month period, tens of millions of Americans are going to lose their jobs and lose their health care as well,” Sanders told HuffPost in a phone interview. “The idea that we look at health care in America as an employee benefit is totally absurd.”
For uninsured Americans, the bill would cover “any health care items and services that are medically necessary or appropriate” to maintain a person’s health, get a diagnosis, or go through rehabilitation, at Medicare rates, which are substantially lower than what private insurers pay providers. In other words, this would not cover elective surgeries like a hip replacement during the pandemic, but would cover cancer treatment or an inhaler for asthma. Many hospitals have stopped elective treatments during the pandemic as health care providers struggle to get the resources they need to address the surge in COVID-19 cases.
For those who are insured, the bill would cover deductibles, copayments and any cost-sharing burdens patients have. The emergency coverage would last until the Food and Drug Administration approves and widely distributes a coronavirus vaccine.
Sanders’ colleagues in the House and Senate, like Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have also been out front calling for the government to help cover coronavirus treatments. Gallego’s proposal in the House would have Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for low-income Americans, cover treatment.
But Sanders’ and Jayapal’s teams were concerned that going through Medicaid, which is run on a state-by-state basis, would encounter issues in lower-income states and in states that have been less willing to expand the program. And they saw the need for coverage beyond coronavirus treatment.
“Assuming there were political consensus that everyone should have this protection from health care costs during the crisis, Medicare is a natural vehicle since it already exists everywhere,” said Larry Levitt, who oversees health policy work at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “While many insurers have voluntarily waived cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatment, this goes quite a bit further in covering out-of-pocket costs for all health care. It’s sort of a temporary Medicare for All, grafted on top of our existing insurance system.”
Sanders’ office noted that this emergency proposal is not an expansion of Medicare, unlike his “Medicare for All” plan, which would move all Americans onto a single supercharged Medicare program. Jayapal authored the House version of the Medicare for All bill introduced in 2019.
That said, there’s been little political consensus around expanding health coverage beyond COVID-19 testing, and so far changes have been on the margins. Congress expanded Medicare’s coverage of telemedicine in the last relief bill but did not include subsidies for COBRA, the federal law that allows recently unemployed Americans to continue their health plans at personal cost, or for the Affordable Care Act. The Trump administration decided against reopening the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces to the 28 million people who were uninsured before the pandemic.
Since then, Republican leaders have been singularly focused on giving aid to small businesses instead of working on a broader relief package. Democrats’ demands to pass widespread coverage for coronavirus treatment have gone nowhere so far.
More than 17 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past four weeks; those who lost health benefits are eligible to extend their benefits through COBRA, buy into the ACA, or in many cases apply for Medicaid. Even for those with insurance, there have been reports of massive hospital bills for coronavirus treatment.
“At a time so many people are losing their jobs, or seeing fewer hours they can work, a reduced income, what you want to do now is say, ‘OK, we are going to take one burden off your shoulders: You’re not going to have to pay for the health care that you need,’” Sanders said.
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