Sherrod Brown's Cop-Out on Single-Payer

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Politico reported today on the Democrats’ internal struggle over Medicare for All. It’s as you’d expect: Anonymous centrists and leadership aides cautioning against moving too fast or far on single-payer, worrying that focusing on Medicare for All will water down the Democrats’ message on protecting the Affordable Care Act from Republicans. (This is flat wrong.)

But the article contained one surprising, confounding tidbit (emphasis mine):

“It’s easy to say ‘Medicare for All’ and make a good speech, but see no action,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a potential 2020 candidate whose own bill would give retiring police and firefighters access to Medicare before 65. “I want to see action.”

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You wot? Medicare-for-All is impossible, so Medicare for... retiring cops and firefighters?

It’s true that cops and firefighters can generally retire after 20 years, creating a gap between the end of their working life and Medicare age (though many cops go on to work other jobs during retirement). But that doesn’t mean that they are the only people who face gaps in coverage, nor even the people facing the most urgent healthcare needs. Talk to anyone who got laid off and can’t afford COBRA, or anyone who can’t afford their health insurance premiums, or anyone who has to get any kind of expensive treatment that their insurance will only partially cover. You only have to look at GoFundMe to know that the problem of insufficient or inaccessible health insurance reaches every corner of the U.S., and impacts everyone except the very wealthy. (Remember that despite his left-ish credentials on issues like Wall Street, Brown took $830,000 from corporate PACs in 2018.)

Giving cops and firefighters healthcare is fine, just as it would be great to give teachers or nurses or public sanitation workers healthcare, but it’s in no way an alternative to Medicare for All, and it sure is a weird way to approach the problem of the financial barriers to adequate healthcare—expanding access one job at a time, in order of how noble Sherrod Brown deems your job to be. Similarly, Brown’s other proposed Medicare for All alternative—a bill that would allow a Medicare buy-in at age 55, which he proposed in the last Congress—kicks the can down the road for a lot of people, as if no one under 55 has medical debt or puts off necessary medical procedures or buying prescriptions because they can’t afford it.

You can argue that this is a matter of only proposing what’s “possible,” that Brown and other Democrats don’t believe Medicare for All is possible in one go, and so an incremental approach is needed. But a Medicare at 55 buy-in isn’t going to pass a Republican Senate, and I’d bet that even Medicare-for-Cops wouldn’t either—this is the party that just tried to kill the Affordable Care Act and eliminate protections for preexisting conditions, after all.

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Democrats like Brown don’t understand that proposals by major party members also define what’s “possible.” That’s why we’re talking about single-payer at all. If you’ve got two years of twiddling your thumbs before another shot at passing legislation, why propose these half-measures unless you really believe only people older than 55 deserve healthcare?

Brown has 2020 presidential aspirations, so it’s hard not to see this odd proposal as trying to ride cops to the White House. He’s clearly of the generation of Democrats that grew up believing the way to get Middle America to trust you is to talk a lot about cops and the troops, and the “dignity of work” over the indignity of rapacious capitalism. But “give Medicare to cops” or lowering the Medicare age to 55 doesn’t get us closer to Medicare for All, and it doesn’t make it easier to make an argument about universal care to expand eligibility to other selected groups. At this rate, lowering the Medicare age by 10 years once every 50 years (or one or two careers at a time) would get us single-payer by approximately 2300. Chuck Grassley might still be kicking around by then, but most of us won’t be.

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If anything, both these proposals double down on the bizarre proposition of the current American system that only certain groups deserve healthcare. That’s awful policy, but it’s also shitty politics, as anyone who isn’t a cop or a firefighter or was born after Cheers premiered has no reason to support these policies. Brown might find that in 2019 and 2020, “Healthcare for Some” just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Update 4:39 p.m. ET: A spokesperson for Sherrod Brown’s office passed along the following statement:

Senator Brown has a long record of fighting for universal coverage and he is continuing that fight today with multiple proposals, including a proposal to open up Medicare to more people starting at a younger age and a proposal to create a “public option” that would allow everyone the opportunity to buy into a Medicare-like program – both proposals that get us closer to the goal of universal coverage without disrupting the healthcare millions of Americans depend on today.

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Libby Watson

Splinter politics writer. libby.watson@splinternews.com