I Support Medicare for All Because Health Care is a Civil Right, a Human Right

Two months ago, I sat down on the steps of the United States Capitol with one of my personal heroes, Congressman John Lewis, to protest Congressional Republicans’ efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. As evening turned into night, we were inspired as hundreds of Americans joined us, reminding us that a long American tradition of standing up in the face of injustice in the name of love and commitment to our fellow citizens is alive and well.

A civil rights giant, Congressman Lewis had stood up and sat in many times before, often risking his life to advocate for the equality and just treatment of all Americans. On one historic occasion in 1965, Congressman Lewis and hundreds of others participated in a nonviolent march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. The march became known as Bloody Sunday because so many were injured by the blows of authorities’ billy clubs and the sting of their tear gas.

In marching to guarantee the right to equal access to the ballot, those who were injured in Selma that day were also confronted with the reality that they were not guaranteed the right to access health care. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned segregation in health care facilities, there was only one hospital in the area that would treat injured African Americans — Good Samaritan Hospital. Many of those who marched, including Congressman Lewis, were cared for at Good Samaritan that day.

Due to the efforts of countless everyday Americans in the days after Bloody Sunday, during the civil rights movement, and in the decades since, we have made important progress in affirming the cause of equality and justice for all. In fact, just four months after Bloody Sunday, the legislation that created Medicare and Medicaid, our nation’s first major health reform effort, was signed into law. Through these programs, not only were thousands of hospitals throughout the country forced to desegregate, but millions of Americans who faced systematic barriers to care — including racial and ethnic minorities, the sick, the poor, and the elderly — gained access to the health care that they needed and deserved.

When President Obama was elected more than four decades later, and with 46 million people uninsured, quality health care still was not accessible for many Americans. The Affordable Care Act, which is the most significant health reform effort since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, is changing this. Because of the law, we have come closer than ever to realizing the goal of universal coverage as our nation’s uninsured rate has fallen to an all-time low, personal bankruptcies due to health care have dramatically decreased, and more people have access to quality care. In my city of Newark, New Jersey, I have seen firsthand the impact of the law: healthier communities, lower health care costs and a stronger economy.

But the Affordable Care Act can’t be the last step in the march toward expanding access to quality care. Too many Americans remain uninsured and underinsured, and Republican attempts to repeal and sabotage the law threaten to undo the progress that has been made, particularly for our nation’s most vulnerable. In addition, perverse incentives mean that we’re paying too high a cost for a health care system that isn’t serving the interests of all Americans. In fact, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services project that the cost of our bloated health care system will amount to 20 percent of the United States’ GDP — or one fifth of our economy — by 2025. We now spend more on health care per person than any other country in the world, yet we consistently report worse health outcomes and greater health disparities than our peer countries.

Our nation is too great and noble to have an unjust health care system where access is granted solely on one’s economic station in life. All of our children are created equal and all of our citizens should have equal access to that which is essential to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We must end the days when Americans are shackled to fear, chained to stress and imprisoned by preventable or treatable illness because they can’t afford health care.

Health care should be an American right, not a mark of economic status out of reach to many just because they don’t make enough money.

That’s why I support Medicare for All, and why I’ll be cosponsoring legislation in the coming days — including Senator Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All Act and forthcoming legislation from my colleagues — that will save lives and move our country’s health care system forward in this direction. It’s the best way to ensure that every American finally has access to quality, affordable health care.

This will be a long fight and we need to work every day to gain ground and improve our broken and unfair health care system. Achieving Medicare for All will mean both championing the idea and supporting many other measures along the way that save lives, make our system more just, significantly lower costs, end profiteering and waste, and move us closer to our ultimate goal.

Quality, affordable health access for all isn’t just a moral imperative, it’s a decision about what kind of country we want to be. Do we want to be a nation that throws more and more money at a broken system and only sees our problems get worse, or a nation that invests in the health, well-being and success of our people and is stronger because of it?

Critics of this approach will say that we can’t afford Medicare for All, that it’s too expensive and it’s too radical a departure for the United States. But the reality is, we can. With a fair tax structure — one that eliminates loopholes and benefits enjoyed only by the richest individuals and biggest corporations — and a Medicare for All system that incentivizes wellness and preventive care, eliminates waste, fraud and abuse, ends craven profiteering, and uses its bargaining power to negotiate lower costs, we can replace the savagely broken system currently in place that is fraught with outrageous costs and inefficiencies and perpetuates inequality.

We know that Medicare for All isn’t a panacea, and it must be done in concert with other critical reforms, but it’s an essential next step in fixing our broken health care system.

What we really can’t afford is our current system, where health care costs continue to rise, life-saving medication remains out-of-reach for too many, and the availability of good care is far too limited.

Despite our progress, the United States of America is one of the most unequal countries in the world when it comes to the disparities in health care between our wealthiest and poorest citizens. We are failing in even basic measures of a healthy society; our maternal mortality rates are the worst in the developed world, and for the first time in over two decades, Americans’ life expectancy is declining.

Our system isn’t sustainable, it isn’t working, it costs too much, it puts American businesses at a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace, and it’s not just. No one living in the wealthiest country in the world should die because they can’t afford quality care.

The past few months have made it abundantly clear that the American people do not want to turn back to a time before the Affordable Care Act, when insurance companies denied coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, women were charged more for their health care because of their gender, and health disparities were even more severe. But they have also made it clear that we cannot stand still. Our system needs a change — one that puts patients first and gives every American the peace of mind that when they need it our health care system will be there for them. It is time that we build upon the work of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act and guarantee the right to quality health care for every American.

This history of this country is rooted, generation after generation, in expanding our founding ideals of liberty and justice for all Americans. From the original founding revolutionaries to abolitionists to suffragettes and more, our legacy demands that we continue this fight. We are a nation that has continuously expanded opportunity and access for all, and we cannot stop now. Medicare for All is a logical and consistent goal, and a moral imperative, as we continue to fight for health care and to make real our nation’s promise for everyone. Generations past have set this course and we have come too far to suspend our action, our commitment, and our vision now.

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