Our Opinion: No litmus tests on health care reform

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On Wednesday, Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, held a hearing on proposals to expand health care to Americans — a significant achievement in and of itself after so many years in which House meetings on health care were devoted to ways of decreasing it by eliminating the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Unfortunately, some of the luster was taken off the hearing by the kind of unproductive internal controversy Democrats are subject to generating.

According to published reports, most notably in the online publication The Independent, advocates of Medicare For All were angry that the chairman, whose 1st Congressional District includes the Berkshires, told members of his committee in private that he would describe the meeting as devoted to exploring methods of providing universal health care rather than specifically Medicare For All. This allegation is unconfirmed but is irrelevant anyway. What is relevant is that an apparent fuss over semantics by progressives would blind them to the significance of this landmark hearing in which a variety of ideas to improve health care were discussed in public before a highly influential House committee.

In essence, Medicare For All calls for an expansion of the current government-run Medicare system to include all Americans. It is supported by members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who advocated for Wednesday's Ways & Means Committee hearing. While proponents, most notably Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, argue that it would ultimately save the nation money, foes claim it will cost trillions of dollars to administer over the next decade. Skeptics also argue that a system that can't work unless everyone participates will be opposed by Americans who are comfortable with the current system built around private health insurers and don't want to see it changed radically.

These concerns are legitimate and can't be brushed aside by advocates for Medicare For All who regard support of that concept as a litmus test for Democratic candidates in 2020. This could undermine Democratic efforts to win the presidency, capture the Senate and maintain control of the House in 2020.

Rep. Brian Higgins, a New York State Democrat, advocates allowing Americans to enroll in Medicare at the age of 50 rather than the current 65. That proposal, too, has its strengths and weaknesses, but there is no denying the wisdom of the congressman's warning about the dangers of pushing elimination of private insurance altogether. "Do we really want to create that schism going into 2020 for ourselves but also for the presidential election?" he asked in a quote from the Independent. "... I mean, let's be practical about this stuff."

Democrats won a major victory with the passage of the ACA (Obamacare,) which President Trump and Republicans have unsuccessfully tried to repeal but have managed to undermine. Protecting it must be Democrats' highest health care priority. Even if Medicare For All wins the day in the House, it will go no further given current political realities. Those realities may change in 2020 if Democrats come together and win independents and some Republicans to their cause, but if they overreach or trigger a backlash against what many voters may seen as a bow to political correctness they risk losing everything.

In his opening remarks Wednesday morning, Rep. Neal called for those attending the hearing to focus on measures that first protect the ACA, and then, in seeking to improve upon it, factor in the impact of those measures on patients, on small hospitals and on communities as a whole. Democrats must consider not only their constituents but the interests of all Americans as they explore health care reform measures with an election year looming.

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