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Bernie Sanders Still Thinks America Needs Universal Healthcare

But for now, he'll settle for defending Obamacare.
Photo by Rachel Woolf/Getty Images

Before Bernie Sanders was the left's favorite presidential candidate, he was a lonely crusader against Obamacare. During the 2009 healthcare debates Sanders was Congress's loudest champion of "single-payer," a system where the government would provide insurance for everyone. Though he ended up voting for the Affordable Care Act, Sanders has also repeatedly filed legislation on behalf of that simpler, but more radical, alternative. "Medicaid for all," as he started calling it, was also a cornerstone of Sanders's 2016 primary campaign.


Although he hasn't given up his fight for truly universal healthcare, the Vermont senator, like others on the left, is now concerned with the more immediate battle: trying to keep Obama's landmark healthcare legislation from being repealed. He's well positioned to use his fame and popularity to help lead that fight, even as he emphasizes that Obamacare isn't good enough.

He claims to still be an independent, but he officially became a Democrat last year in order to vie for the presidential nomination. Despite his "it's complicated" position on party politics, Sanders has maintained his a commitment to single-payer healthcare system unpopular among mainstream Democrats. Even at a rally for Obamacare in Warren, Michigan, on Saturday, he stuck to his longtime message.

"Our job today is to defend the Affordable Care Act. Our job tomorrow is to create a Medicare for all," Sanders told the crowd.

Back in March, Sanders pulled off an upset of Hillary Clinton in the Michigan primary, and there were plenty of his supporters there feeling the Bern in freezing temperatures. None of the people I spoke to viewed Sanders's support for Obamacare is not a betrayal of his fight for a government-backed single-payer system.

"I think his ultimate goal still is universal healthcare, but as they say, 'Perfect can't be the enemy of good,'" Darwin Spaysky, a 63-year-old, told me. "I think he's being pragmatic." The youth supervisor at a local juvenile delinquent center said he voted for Sanders in the Democratic primary.


"I'm really glad that Bernie is still keeping it up," Spaysky said of Sanders's desire to expand Obamacare.

Michigan was one of a few key Midwestern states that narrowly swung the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump, and Sanders's success there marks him as someone who could turn the state blue again. In November, Senate Democrats tapped Sanders to head outreach, making him the first independent to hold a party leadership position since the current leadership structure was instituted early in the 20th century. He's using this role to push the Democratic Party toward his promise of a "political revolution." That means talking up single-payer even when he's nominally at a rally in favor of Obamacare.

It also means offering populist alternatives to mainstream Democratic positions. Following a marathon session that concluded late on Thursday night, the Senate passed a resolution that marked the first step toward the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. During that vote, Sanders took the floor to denounce the repeal, but he did not waste an opportunity to push for a vote advancing an anti-corporate agenda.

"The votes tonight are really about whether we are prepared to stand up for ordinary Americans," he said, "Or whether we're going to continue to kowtow to the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry."

Sanders then forced his Democratic peers to vote on that sentiment when he, along with Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar proposed an amendment that would have allowed for the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, where they are often exponentially cheaper. Though some Republicans crossed the aisle to vote for that amendment, 13 Democrats voted against the measure, including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.


As Jezebel pointed out, Booker and a few of the other Democrats who cast nay votes have received a lot of money from large pharmaceutical companies. The $267,338 Booker has accepted from big pharma over the last several years is surpassed only by Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when it came to taking money from big pharma.

In response to Jezebel, Booker offered the following defense: "I support the importation of prescription drugs as a key part of a strategy to help control the skyrocketing cost of medications. Any plan to allow the importation of prescription medications should also include consumer protections that ensure foreign drugs meet American safety standards."

For many Sanders's fans the amendment is a prime example of what sets him apart: His willingness to take jabs at large industries and big banks in order to support the average American. He sounded some of the same notes while weighing whether or not to support Obamacare in 2009. "I absolutely know that the insurance companies and the drug companies will be laughing all the way to the bank the day after this is passed," he told the New York Times back then. (He eventual vote in support of the bill came after he helped add several provisions, including the inclusion of $11 billion in funding for community health centers.)

Sanders's critiques of Obamacare suggest that he would support scrapping it—but only if it could be replaced with a more progressive alternative. With that off the table, he's focused on persuading his voters to help the Democrats block the repeal.


"There are differences of opinion about the Affordable Care Act," Sanders said at the rally in Michigan. "Some people like it, some people don't like it, but very few Americans believe we should repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement program to make it better."

Many of Sanders's most appealing policy suggestions have a common-sense appeal: Drugs should be cheaper. More people should have insurance. Healthcare decisions shouldn't be based on income. The fight against the effort to repeal Obamacare has a similar logic: Don't take healthcare away from sick people.

"I'm a cancer survivor," Kay Hunsanger told me. While her melanoma is in remission, the 55-year-old homeschool educator worries for the worst.

"I know I won't be able to get insurance [without Obamacare]," she said. "I know if my cancer returns it'll be a death sentence."

Beenish Ahmed is a reporter, writer, and the founder of THE ALIGNIST. Follow Beenish Ahmed on Twitter.