Brooklynites cheer single-payer health care at congressional town hall

Democrats in Congress are working to protect the ACA, but some New Yorkers aren't giving up on universal health care

By Caroline Lewis
Crain's New York Business, Feb. 23, 2017

The future of the Affordable Care Act has been a major point of contention at town hall meetings convened by members of Congress across the country in recent days, with some Republican politicians drawing ire in their districts. At an overflowing and overwhelmingly friendly town hall Wednesday night hosted by Rep. Yvette Clarke in progressive Brooklyn, the Democratic congresswoman predictably defended the ACA.

But audience members, who numbered in the hundreds, showed their most enthusiastic support for an alternative that gets far less attention in the political sphere: universal health care.

A universal, or single-payer, health system would provide everyone access to taxpayer-funded health care, eliminating the need for consumers to sign up for public, private or employer-funded plans.

Democrat-backed bills have long been kicking around the New York Legislature and the U.S. Congress that propose variations on that system. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democrat of Vermont, championed a "Medicare for All" concept during his presidential campaign. But such proposals haven't come close to achieving bipartisan support.

The New York Health Act—sponsored by Assemblyman Dick Gottfried and Sen. Bill Perkins, both Manhattan Democrats—passed the majority-Democratic state Assembly in the last two sessions, but it has been stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Of the dozens of audience members who posed questions to Clarke and her invited speakers, just one directly addressed the future of the ACA.

"We could increase subsidies and we could expand Medicaid further, but those are just Band-Aids, not proper solutions," the young man asking the question began. "At what point will congressional Democrats come out in full force in full support of universal, single-payer health care?"

After sustained applause and cheers from the crowd, Clarke replied, "You're talking my kind of language. I've been for single-payer health care ever since I've been in Congress."

Clarke suggested that the reason there's pushback against the ACA is that it's "taking us down that road."

While President Barack Obama paid lip service to a single-payer system during his 2008 campaign, the Affordable Care Act has maintained a diverse insurance market.

The law did greatly expand the number of people enrolled in government-funded and subsidized insurance plans, though, particularly in New York. As of Jan. 31, more than 2.4 million people signed up for Medicaid through the state's Obamacare marketplace. The state also has enrolled more than 665,000 people in its Essential Plan, a federally subsidized option created under the ACA for New Yorkers earning less than twice the federal poverty level who don't qualify for Medicaid.

Clarke is one of 63 members of Congress, all Democrats, who have signed onto the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act, calling for single-payer health care. But she said her focus remains on organizing constituents to resist the proposed repeal of the ACA.

Some New Yorkers might have a "certain level of comfort that we have a Democratic state that does to a certain degree do everything it can to preserve the right to health care," Clarke told Crain's after the event.

Grassroots efforts to pressure Congress to preserve coverage and federal funding are essential, she said.

"We're continuing to promote the need for the ACA and to encourage New Yorkers to make their preference known for the ACA, because it would be catastrophic to our health care infrastructure if this is repealed without any replacement," she said. "And who knows what type of replacement they would offer in any event."