Bernie Sanders wants to make sweeping changes to Medicare and prescription drug policy — and evade the filibuster to do it.
The Vermont Independent is urging his party to force Medicare to enter into negotiations with drug companies and use that revenue to pay for a huge expansion of the entitlement program. Sanders, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, is aiming to lower Medicare’s eligibility age from 65 to 55 or 60 years old and expand the program to cover dental work, glasses and eye surgeries as well as hearing aids.
Those major changes would be rolled into a massive infrastructure bill Democrats are starting to craft that’s likely to include to tax policy as well. Sanders said in an interview on Friday that Congress’ recent $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief measure was “an enormous step forward” on the immediate challenges facing the country, but that “now we have to look at the structural long-term problems facing our people.”
“We’re talking about physical infrastructure, affordable housing. We’re talking about transforming our energy system to deal with climate change. We’re talking about human infrastructure,” Sanders said. “In the rescue plan, we were able to take a major step forward in lowering child poverty — very important. Now I want to deal with issues facing seniors as well.”
Sanders’ emerging plans come amid a budding Washington battle over the filibuster rules and questions over whether Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will try to will his caucus to kill the 60-vote threshold for most legislation. Sanders did not want to get into that on Friday, but his hope to craft huge changes to health care policy via the blunt legislative tool known as budget reconciliation is an acknowledgment that many liberals plan to move aggressively on their agenda before the midterms, regardless of what happens with the Senate rules.
The remarks from Sanders also jibe with growing support in the House for a “kitchen sink” approach to the next reconciliation bill, which can pass the Senate with a simple majority but has some limits to its use. House Democrats are discussing including drug pricing and climate legislation in their next big legislative package, which is expected to focus on infrastructure while hiking some taxes on corporations and high-income earners.
Earlier this year the House passed the Covid recovery bill and attached a measure raising the minimum wage to $15 hourly, but that was stripped out of the package after the Senate’s parliamentarian determined it would need 60 Senate votes. Sanders said that if he, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schumer can agree on including his Medicare and drug policy changes, they won’t run into that procedural blockade.
“This is easier. This is pretty straightforward,” Sanders said. Senior Democrats say they are confident that issues like health care would pass muster under the Senate budget rules, given that those policies would have a major budgetary impact.
“Right now what I want to focus on is the fact that there is an enormous crisis facing seniors who are unable to get the dental care, the hearing aids, and the optical care that they need,” Sanders added.
President Joe Biden is also considering proposing a massive $3 trillion infrastructure package, which Schumer said on Thursday he is just beginning to coordinate on with the administration. Biden and many Democrats would like to kill some of former President Donald Trump’s tax cuts and use that to pay for part of their progressive wish list, aligning with Sanders’ broader priorities though not yet endorsing his call for a Medicare expansion.
Sanders estimated that adding the drug pricing component to the bill would raise $450 billion over 10 years, and that money could go toward expanding Medicare coverage to dental, optical and hearing aids, which he believed would cost about $350 billion.
But as far as a total sum of how much new spending Sanders would like to see, the gruff Vermonter demurred on Friday. He said he doesn’t want to just pick a target; he wants to check off as much as can be done to help people across the country and then figure out just how much that would cost.
“You don’t start off by coming up with a sum and working down. You start out by looking at the needs that need to be addressed and adding them up,” he said.
Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.