COLUMBIA, SC – "Medicare for All" has played a role in nearly every stage of the Democratic presidential campaign, but there's been some quibbling over how that phrase is defined. With just weeks until the first 2020 contests, several groups are organizing grassroots efforts aimed at convincing voters they should back candidates who fully support the legislation from which the phrase is derived.
This week, as candidates descended on Iowa for Tuesday's debate at Drake University, U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan, co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, planned a Medicare for All town hall in Des Moines. That event, in conjunction with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement — a progressive group whose political arm has endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president — aimed to "highlight how Medicare for All will help small businesses and working families," organizers said.
Months ahead of the lead-off caucus votes, the group sponsored town hall meetings featuring health care policy experts from the Sanders Institute, the now-defunct think tank started by Sanders' wife and son.
The signature Medicare for All health care proposal of Sanders' 2016 presidential effort has in concept stood for a single-payer, government-run health care system. But the phrase has become somewhat of an umbrella term for a variety of plans to revamp and otherwise reconfigure the existing system.
Sanders has often reminded debate audiences that he "wrote the damn bill" on Medicare for All, which remains the centerpiece of his 2020 campaign. Several other candidates, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, signed on to support the measure, although as a candidate, she has stressed using executive power to make immediate changes, like lowering prescription drug costs.
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg says he backs “Medicare for all who want it," and businessman Andrew Yang posited creating a government-run health insurance system but ultimately rolling out something without a public option component.
In South Carolina, home to the first Southern primary, Medicare for All NOW, an advocacy group launched by former health care executive Wendell Potter, released a digital ad campaign Wednesday focused on convincing the black voters who make up most of the state's Democratic electorate that they should support candidates who back the proposal.
South Carolina was chosen, in part, because it's one of three dozen states that haven't expanded Medicaid, according to Kerri Harris, a former Senate candidate and the group's movement director. The group will be training canvassers to go into five South Carolina counties and aim to educate people in minority and low-income areas about the proposals and how they would benefit.
“We haven't as organizations taken it to the people,” Harris said. "South Carolina is going to be our ground zero."
Harris said her organization relies on the definition of Medicare for All as laid out in legislation, which Sanders' Senate office said “will create a federal universal health insurance program to provide comprehensive coverage for all Americans,” including prescription drugs, and with no co-pay or deductible costs.
In the coming months, organizers said the group will expand its campaign to lower-income communities in other states that also haven't expanded Medicaid. Some of this effort, Harris said, has been complicated by candidates, at times, using varying definitions of Medicare for All, so clearing up misconceptions is paramount.
“There's a lot of misinformation,” she said. “We are in communication with many campaigns, letting them know that this is the type of messaging that we're using, and we are consistent with our messaging.”
To win over any moderates, some voters are encouraging candidates to start thinking about the general election fight ahead, when the argument for a single-payer system could potentially be harder to make.
“Stop talking about Medicare for All or make it a modified version,” advised Lee Williams, a 69-year-old retired Navy officer who attended a recent Warren event in South Carolina and plans to back the Massachusetts senator. “It isn't the people who are Democratic -- and have been -- that she needs to convince.”
Meg Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP
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