Government-Run Health Care: Democrats’ New Litmus Test

WASHINGTON — Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., plays the long game.

The longest-serving member of the House of Representatives introduced a bill to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday four days after his assassination, but had to wait until the Reagan administration to see it become law.

For the past two decades, Conyers’ moonshot idea has been transforming America’s healthcare system into a more European-style single-payer one, in which everyone gets coverage under the federal government’s Medicare program. He’s introduced the bill in every new Congress, and watched it go nowhere each time.

Now, things are changing. Single-payer is attracting serious attention as it gains increasing prominence in the post-Obamacare ideological battle over health care.

Conyers’ bill, called “Medicare for All” and one of many like-minded approaches to single-payer, would entirely replace private insurance plans with free coverage of everything from eyeglasses to emergency room visits, paid for by new taxes concentrated on the wealthy.

The concept was easy for Hillary Clinton to dismiss last year during the presidential race. “People who have health emergencies can’t wait for us to have a theoretical debate about some better idea that will never, ever come to pass,” she said in January in Des Moines, Iowa.

A week later, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., came within a bushy-eyebrow hair of defeating Clinton in the Iowa caucuses on a platform built around Medicare for All, launching him and the issue toward the mainstream of the Democratic party.

Last week, Senate Republicans tried to weaponize Conyers’ bill by forcing Democrats to vote on something that the GOP is convinced is politically toxic.

“This single-payer, it’s the gold standard for the Democrats,” said Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. “President Trump, the Republicans, want to make America great again. The Democrats want to make America like England again.”

Daines and other Republicans ticked through the litany of criticisms that have made single-payer a non-starter so far: Exorbitant cost to taxpayers; potential for health care rationing and long wait times; and government interference in personal health decisions.

Daines’ move to force Democrats to vote on it fell flat when three red-state Democrats took the opportunity to go on the record against the plan. The rest of the Democrats abstained at the urging of Sanders and Conyers, thus keeping the door open as the party moves increasingly toward single payer at a faster clip than almost anyone expected.

“I don’t know how many of the candidates will support Medicare for All,” Conyers said of the party’s prospective 2020 presidential field. “But it’s pretty obvious at this point that the winning one will.”

Image: Conyers holds a House Judiciary Committee hearing on "Executive Power and Its Constitutional Limitation" on Capitol Hill in Washington

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich at House Judiciary Committee hearing.