Ady Barkan: Elizabeth Warren Is Right. Time to Admit Medicare for All Saves Americans Money, Tax Hike or Not | Opinion

Last week's Democratic presidential debate was frustrating. Firstly, three hours came and went without a single question on the climate crisis, perhaps the defining issue of our time. Secondly, questionable facts were on full display, as moderators took it for granted that automation was the primary driver of manufacturing job losses, when the truth is more complicated. But perhaps most maddening of all was the built-in right-wing bias when the discussion turned to health care.

One by one, the moderate candidates on stage joined the moderators in grilling Senator Elizabeth Warren, demanding to know whether her support for Medicare for All meant she was willing to raise taxes on the middle class. Senator Warren's answer was simple: The overwhelming majority of families would save money under Medicare for All. She was making the point that the only reason people mind a tax increase is that it takes money out of their pockets.

Medicare for All wouldn't do that, because in exchange for modest tax increases, the federal government would be covering the cost of all co-pays, deductibles, premiums and out-of-pocket health care expenses—which adds up, for the average non-elderly American family, to about 11 percent of their annual income. Think of it, Senator Warren is saying, as a check from the government made out in your name for everything you spend on health care, year after year. Sure, you might have to give a little bit of that back to pay for the program, but isn't that a trade most people would take?

The answer, at least for me, is a resounding yes. Since being diagnosed with ALS in 2016, I and the people I love have had to spend countless hours on the phone arguing with the insurance company to fight for coverage of basic care, like a ventilator to help me breathe. I won some of those battles, but I lost bigger ones.

Unlike in Japan, where long-term care for ALS patients is covered by the country's national health care program, American insurance companies today flatly will not cover the cost of home care, which is something I need to survive. I'm lucky enough to have wealthy supporters and a platform that help me foot the $20,000 monthly bill I now pay for that care, but for most people, that's obviously not an option. It's why most ALS patients in the U.S. just go bankrupt or die early instead, while those in Japan live much longer.

This is deeply personal for me, because the last thing you want when you've been given a death sentence like ALS is to have to worry about how you're going to find tens of thousands of dollars per month that you don't have, just to continue surviving. I needed Medicare for All years ago, and it would have saved my family time, money and heartache.

The truth is this: The discussion on health care during last week's presidential debate was won by the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. They love the status quo, which helps them rake in billions and billions in profits every year, while the rest of us go bankrupt trying to figure out how to pay for basic medical care when disaster strikes. They have worked for years to focus moderators and the media on the cost of the solution, rather than the scale of the problem. And by all accounts, the industries' spin doctors have succeeded.

When Senator Bernie Sanders said 500,000 people go bankrupt every year from medical bills, The Washington Post "fact-checked" him by arguing that medical debt was only part of the reason for every one of those bankruptcies. The fact of the matter is that the pharmaceutical and insurance industries have done remarkably well at shifting the debate on health care in this country so far to the right that an assumption that taxes are always bad seems to be taken for granted. As does a basic doubt over how bad the problems are with our current system, along with a gut-level skepticism over the cost of such a broad expansion of Medicare.

Elizabeth Warren
Presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren talks with MSNBC host Chris Hays following the fourth Democratic presidential debate on October 15 in Westerville, Ohio. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

What I hope to see going forward, both as an ALS patient and advocate, is more responsible and balanced perspectives from news outlets that pride themselves on their philosophical neutrality. That's why I launched uncovered, a new presidential candidate interview series to move the public dialogue on health care beyond right-wing framing and shouted 30-second sound bites. It's focused on substantive, personal conversations about health care policy grounded in everyday Americans' experiences.

But I can't do it alone, which is why I hope to see from legacy television news outlets more of a focus on the experiences of real people struggling with the massive burden of health care costs in our country, as well as a willingness to give more left-wing advocates of Medicare for All the space to make their arguments to rebut this basic bias in public. We have to have a real debate over health care in this country, but it can't look like what I saw last week.

Ady Barkan is a progressive activist who founded the Be a Hero PAC and built two programs at the Center for Popular Democracy. He graduated from Yale Law School and Columbia College, and lives with his wife and their young son in Santa Barbara, California. Barkan's book, Eyes to the Wind: A Memoir of Love and Death, Hope and Resistance, was published in September by Atria Books.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

Ady Barkan
Ady Barkan with his wife and son. Courtesy of Be a Hero