Democrats Can’t Shake Their Inequality Blind Spot on Health Care

Continuing to support Obamacare and failing to enact prescription drug reform favors the wealthy

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Once again, Democrats have sabotaged a Bernie Sanders-led effort to reduce the costs of prescription drugs for consumers. Rolling Stone reported, “Democratic discipline broke down. The amendment this time was beaten in committee, 13-10. Two Democrats, Patty Murray and Michael Bennet, both of whom accept a lot of pharmaceutical money, voted no.” In January, progressives criticized several Democratic Party senators for failing to support an amendment introduced by Sanders that would have allowed pharmaceutical drugs to be imported in order to reduce costs for patients facing soaring drug prices. Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Bob Casey, and 11 other Democrats voted against the amendment. Ten Republicans supported it. In defending their vote, the senators echoed a pharmaceutical industry talking point that drug safety protections weren’t included in the amendment. These protections were included in the latest amendment to appease these concerns, but Democrats still failed to get behind it.

The failure of the Democratic Party to unite behind reducing the costs of prescription drugs illuminates a broader blind spot that the majority of the Democratic Party has toward health care. Progressives have focused on pushing their elected officials to support single payer health care, a stance that seeks to address the 28 million people uninsured by Obamacare and the millions more who are under insured or face such high deductibles and premiums that they only have health care on paper.

Instead of addressing the stark inequality of the current health care system, Democrats blindly stand by Obamacare. DNC Chair Tom Perez reduced calls for Medicare for all, claiming if he were “king for a day” he would make it a reality. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told progressives at a town hall in March, “If you want to move to single payer, what you should do…is support state options.” Hillary Clinton claimed during the 2016 Democratic primaries that single payer will “never, ever” happen.

The problem with these arguments is that Obamacare specifically ignores inequalities in favor of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Obamacare provides health insurance—not health care—and its accessibility is determined by the profit margin of this industry. Therefore, it does not provide health care to all. Pushes for a single payer health care system and amendments that reduce prescription drug costs seek to correct the inequalities perpetuated by the monopolistic framing of Obamacare that puts consumers at the mercy of big pharma and the health insurance industry.

Right now, progressive’s momentum has led to 112 out of 193 House Democrats co-sponsoring a single payer health care bill proposed by Congressman John Conyers. Only a short while ago, the bill had very little support among Democrats. Despite this growing support, naysayers within the party still denigrate the policy as unattainable, pointing to the current political climate in which Democrats are the minority in Congress. However, a majority of the party’s voters support a single payer health care system. The Democratic Party must reflect the wishes of its constituency and push for policies that seek to correct the inequalities that cause working, middle-class and low-income voters to suffer. Pretending that Obamacare just needs a few tweaks reaffirms the conception voters have of the Democratic Party: It’s out of touch with voters.