With John Conyers’s Resignation, Keith Ellison Will Take Ownership of House Single-Payer Bill

Keith Ellison has stepped up to promote the cause of single-payer health care in Congress.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 12:  U.S. Sen. Keith Ellison (D-MN) speaks during a news briefing December 12, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) spoke on the Labor Department's recently-proposed rule "to make tips the property of employers; and the impact of the rule on restaurant workers' wages and rights."  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Sen. Keith Ellison (D-MN) speaks during a news briefing December 12, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. U.S. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

After Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers, the dean of the House of Representatives, resigned over allegations of sexual misconduct last year, the future of his marquee cause — establishing a single-payer universal health care system — became uncertain.

Conyers was the prime author and sponsor of H.R.676, which would improve and expand Medicare to every single American, displacing private health insurance companies. With 121 co-sponsors, it has the backing of the majority of the House Democratic caucus.

On Wednesday, Rep. Keith Ellison, deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, stepped up and asked his colleagues for unanimous consent to replace Conyers as the lead sponsor of the legislation. They granted him permission.

Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, told The Intercept he had spoken ahead of time to Conyers, who gave him his blessing. The Conyers bill, though, is largely a shell, and Ellison said he wants to flesh it out for when it’s re-introduced next time. “We’re constantly going to try to improve the bill, to find way to make it more effective, make it work better,” he said.

“We’re going to listen to the people. We want to drive a lot of discussion. We want to get the 120 who are on the bill to really listen and have folks give them input,” Ellison said. “We want to talk to experts, but we also want to talk to people. So we’re going to improve it based on that. We’re not going to try to impose ideology, we’re going to be pragmatic.”

Under a single-payer health care system, the government would be the primary health insurer of all Americans. Instead of paying premiums, copays, and deductibles to a private plan through an individual market or employer, people would instead pay for insurance through their taxes. Advocates for this system, which is dynamically popular on the left, argue that it would be much more efficient — doctors and hospitals currently have to manage paperwork and billing with hundreds of different health insurers, instead of just one — and would actually save money in the long run. The United States would save about $350 billion in net health care spending by switching to single payer, according to some estimates.

Ellison’s lead on the single-payer bill comes at a time when there is growing momentum for a “Medicare for All” health care system in the Democratic Party. The policy has become a staple of a number of 2018 Democratic campaigns, including both gubernatorial and congressional runs. Despite increasing support for single payer, proponents of the legislation are a far way off from getting the majority they need to pass it in either the House or the Senate.

Last year, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced a Senate companion to the House single-payer legislation, earning the support of 15 Senate co-sponsors. In some ways, the Sanders legislation is less ambitious than the House version; unlike H.R. 676, the Sanders bill would not bring everyone into a single payer within a year, it would instead phase in the system over four years.

Top photo: U.S. Sen. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) speaks during a news briefing Dec. 12, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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