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Ady Barkan makes a moral case for single payer at first-ever Medicare for All hearing

"Too many people in the halls of this building are fine to accept the status quo that leaves people like me behind."

Single-payer advocate Ady Barkan speaks to House lawmakers during the first hearing on Medicare for All, April 30, 2019. (Photo Credit: Screenshot/CSPAN)
Single-payer advocate Ady Barkan speaks to House lawmakers during the first hearing on Medicare for All, April 30, 2019. (Photo Credit: Screenshot/CSPAN)

At the first-ever congressional hearing dedicated to Medicare for All on Tuesday, activist Ady Barkan underscored the urgent need to change our health care system right now.

As he told members of the House Rules Committee, Barkan would rather have been at home with his wife and son instead of making the case for Medicare for All. The renowned organizer is dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

“Every day is precious for me. I don’t have time on my side,” said Barkan, using a text-to-voice computer program because the illness has made it harder for him to use his own voice. “Americans who are dealing with the everyday realities of health care don’t have time on their side. No one should fight to be dealing with dignity again and that’s why I’m here today.”

Barkan made the extraordinarily difficult journey to Washington, D.C, all the way from California.

As he shared on Tuesday, ALS has not only paralyzed Barkan, but left him and his wife rummaging for cash. His disease costs him $9,000 dollars every month, despite them having good private insurance, and they have had to rely on friends and strangers through GoFundMe to help cover the costs.

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His story is hardly unique. One in six Americans have an unpaid medical bill, totaling roughly $81 billion in debt, according to a new study published in Health Affairs.

“Here’s what I know for sure, I needed Medicare for All to be in effect yesterday. If the richest nation in the history of the world really decided to, we could guarantee health care as a right and we could probably do it more quickly than people think but the problem is right now we’re not even trying,” Barkan told lawmakers. 

“Too many people in the halls of this building are fine to accept the status quo that leaves people like me behind,” he added.

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Barkan repeatedly made the moral argument for Medicare for All: if there’s agreement that health care is a human right and the status quo doesn’t treat it as such, let’s do something now. When faced with questions about costs, Barkan asked why politicians don’t ask where the money comes from when it’s about funding war. When asked about employer-sponsored insurance, he asked why other rights like education aren’t tethered to jobs.

Tuesday’s hearing was focused on Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA)’s Medicare for All legislation. While lawmakers agreed to hold a hearing Tuesday, it’s unlikely this legislation will move forward, much less pass in Congress this session. If Democrats take back the White House, it’ll be up to the next president whether the party is ready to return to health care reform. Rejecting the political realities of Medicare for All, Barkan called on lawmakers to act now.

Altogether, the hearing was perhaps the most even-keeled discussion on Medicare for All one could hope for on Capitol Hill these days. Nearly every expert invited to testify reckoned with the trade-offs under a Medicare for All system: higher taxes in exchange for no premiums or out-of-pocket costs. The various experts Democrats invited to speak included Dr. Dean Baker with Center for Economic and Policy Research, Dr. Sara Collins with The Commonwealth Fund, and Dr. Doris Browne with National Medical Association, and emergency room physician Dr. Farzon Nahvi.

Republicans invited Dr. Charles Blahous, who authored the study that said Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) 2017 Medicare for All bill would cost the federal government $32 trillion over 10 years but would save the United States up to $2 trillion over the same time. GOP members also invited Galen Institute’s Grace-Marie Turner, who unlike Blahous, delivered on GOP talking points by falsely likening the Jayapal bill to Medicare for none. 

Many single-payer activists were concerned Tuesday’s hearing was a farce because none of their own were initially invited to testify before Congress, according to a HuffPost report last week. A few days after the report, Barkan was invited to testify. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who reportedly had a hand in picking who’d testify, maintained that Barkan’s testimony had already been planned.

Barkan’s appearance at Tuesday’s hearing galvanized Medicare for All supporters. Members with his advocacy group, the Center for Popular Democracy, were outside the hearing room, cheering him on.

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Two hours into the hearing, National Nurses United executive director Bonnie Castillo called for a vote on Jayapal’s bill.

“We know that Medicare for All would eliminate these crippling expenses, and ensure that our patients – the people we have sworn an oath to help – can get the health care they need,” Castillo said in a press statement. “Now that this legislation has been brought up in Committee, we urge Speaker Pelosi to introduce this bill on the House floor for a vote. The American people are demanding Medicare for All, and they won’t be silenced,” she added.

Opponents of Medicare for All have already responded to the hearing. On Tuesday, Chip Kahn, the CEO and president of the Federation of American Hospitals, called the hearing “all about unicorns” and said “[h]ealth care coverage is too important to American families to depend on some quest for mythical aberrations.”