MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Call it the battle of the bills. Senators are rolling out competing health care plans. One is called the Medicare for all bill. This is Bernie Sanders' bill, independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. And it would expand government-run health care to all Americans.
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BERNIE SANDERS: Health care in America must be a right, not a privilege.
KELLY: Now, meanwhile, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham introduced the latest Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.
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LINDSEY GRAHAM: If you want a single-payer health care system, this is your worst nightmare. Bernie, this ends your dream of a single-payer health care system for America.
KELLY: Let's bring in the voice of another senator. Jeff Merkley is a Democrat from Oregon, and he is a supporter of the Medicare for all bill. He's in the studio with us this morning. How're you doing? Good morning.
JEFF MERKLEY: Good morning, Mary Louise. I'm great to be here.
KELLY: We are glad to have you here. Why do you think the Bernie Sanders plan is the right plan?
MERKLEY: Well, it's the right plan because American working people are just absolutely stressed by the complexity of our fractured health care system. Either they qualify for Medicaid, but they're - they get a little bit of boost in their income. Now they don't. How do you get on the exchange in the middle of the year? Does your employer cover just you? How do you cover your children? Will they qualify for the Children's Health Insurance Program? It's a constant gauntlet of application, rejection, re-application. And then you're just not sure that the insurance company will actually pay for your health care when you are sick or injured.
KELLY: Yeah, so simplicity is one plus to this plan.
MERKLEY: Simple, seamless - it's...
KELLY: You just show a government - one card and no (unintelligible).
MERKLEY: It's there when you need it just by virtue of being an American.
KELLY: The big question is how much is this going to cost? Even Senator Sanders admits this will be nothing approaching cheap.
MERKLEY: Well, in terms of the costs for health care for America, it lowers the cost because you have insurance companies that now have about a 20 percent overhead. And Medicare has about a 2 percent overhead. That's enormous savings. This would enable Medicare to negotiate the price of drugs. That's an enormous savings. And so in terms of the total cost to America, the cost goes down. We're paying twice what Canada pays, twice what Germany pays, twice what France pays, twice what Great Britain pays and getting less for it. And so it's time to have less stress, more coverage, cheaper price.
KELLY: If all that is true, why do many members of your own party, many fellow Democrats, oppose this bill?
MERKLEY: Well, any change in the status quo takes on very powerful organizations. Of course, the drug companies don't want Medicare to negotiate the price of drugs. The insurance companies don't want to have - be replaced by a more efficient Medicare program. And so they're going to do everything they can to demonize this plan, to discourage Americans, and they've been very effective in doing that in the past. So people are afraid of the weight of these powerful, special interests.
KELLY: One other concern that's being aired among Democrats is that if they back this bill it will open them to charges of backing a socialist plan that at the end of the day is going to require a big tax hike to pay for it.
MERKLEY: People are very familiar with what Medicare is. People have been coming to my town halls for years saying I just hope to stay alive until I get to age 65. And now, of course, with Obamacare, it's more likely that they've been able to sign up for insurance and to get care. So that's an improvement, but they're still incredibly stressed by the complexity of the health care system.
KELLY: Do you realistically believe, Senator, that Medicare for all has any chance of passing in a Republican-controlled Congress when not even all Democrats are behind it?
MERKLEY: It has no chance at all. But if you don't lay out a vision and you don't start carrying on the dialogue with the American people, then you have no chance to build towards a better future. And we're trapped by the inefficient, expensive, stressful system that we currently have. So even Bernie Sanders - he laid this out. And I applaud him for bringing now 16 co-sponsors along, 17 co-sponsors. We've never seen anything like that before. I was predicting last weekend we'd have at least 10, so I was pleased with that. But it - he laid it out and said it's time to now take this idea and do the opposite of what the Republicans did. They did something in private in, you know, the basement. They hid it away. They brought it out the last second to the floor. This is the opposite. This is lay out a plan and talk to Americans about it. Let's go on and continue the discussion about a better system.
KELLY: But there's laying out a vision and then there's actually getting something done. Why not just work to improve what is already in place, the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare?
MERKLEY: Well, we absolutely need to do that. Right now, the administration is sabotaging the plan. They're not...
KELLY: They're saying it's not neither or. You can work to improve Obamacare...
MERKLEY: Absolutely not.
KELLY: ...And hope that somewhere down the road you get Medicare for all.
MERKLEY: Yes, yes, absolutely. So we need to make sure the cost-sharing payments are made under Obamacare. We need a public option. Now, one way the two could work together - add a public option to Obamacare and make it a Medicare buy in. That's an idea I've been promoting for some time. I think it'd be a terrific approach. Enable companies to buy into Medicare. They're already - they already have a pool. They're already making payments. Neither of those costs the government a single cent and yet they move us closer towards a subjective of a simple, seamless system.
KELLY: Has a single Republican signed on to support this?
MERKLEY: No, not at all.
KELLY: Anything you could do to sweeten it for them, try to - try to bring them on board? I mean, why not work for something across the aisle, for something that could actually pass?
MERKLEY: Well, the Republicans decided to oppose any improvements to our health care system. They have locked arms with the insurance industry and the drug industry, and they're all about getting re-elected. They're not about good health care for Americans.
KELLY: We'll leave it there. That is Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat from Oregon. Thank you so much for coming in this morning.
MERKLEY: Thank you, great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.