“Medicare for All” Becomes Issue in Race for Al Franken’s Senate Seat

When Sen. Al Franken resigned, the “Medicare for all” bill lost a sponsor. The Democrats vying to replace Franken are split on whether they'll support it.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 12:  U.S. Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) arrives for a vote at the Capitol February 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. The Senate has passed a procedural vote today to begin debate on immigration and border security.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-MN, arrives for a vote at the Capitol on February 12, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

When Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., resigned from the Senate in January, Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders’s landmark single-payer health care legislation, the Medicare for All Act, lost a sponsor.

The bill now has 16 sponsors — far from the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster and the simple majority needed to pass legislation — so every senator’s support matters.

The contenders in the Democratic primary for the Minnesota Senate seat are split on whether they’ll sponsor a single-payer bill if elected.f

Richard Painter, a former Republican who switched parties out of opposition to President Donald Trump, said he’ll support the Sanders bill or whatever prominent single-payer legislation exists in the Senate. He said that single payer, under which the federal government would provide health care, is a necessity because of the costs being imposed on small businesses of the current employer-based health insurance system.

“The problem we’ve got is that when we tie health care costs to the employment relationship, it makes the employer pay a significant portion of the health care costs,” Painter told The Intercept. “And also makes the employer go find plans for the employees. That’s the American system. It’s not used in most other industrialized countries. … The problem with this system is that the small-business owner is severely disadvantaged compared with the big companies.”

Tina Smith, the former Minnesota lieutenant governor who was appointed to replace Franken, is also running in the August primary ahead of the November special election. She has not yet co-sponsored the Sanders legislation, and is unsure she will do so in the future.

“Right now, she’s talking with Minnesotans and gathering information about all the health care bills in the Senate,” said Smith’s spokesperson, Michael Dale-Stein. “Will make sure to let you know when we have more info on specific proposals.”

Painter thinks the answer about what plan to support should be obvious. “There’s only so much talking and deciding,” he said. “We’ve talked to a lot of people about health care for a long time. We have a lot of information. We’ve gotta solve a problem.”

As lieutenant governor, Smith last year touted a “public option” that would allow Minnesotans to voluntarily buy into MinnesotaCare, which is run by the state.

Democratic state Sen. John Marty, on the other hand, proposed a Minnesota-wide single-payer health care plan called the Minnesota Health Plan. Under that plan, all basic health care would be paid for by the state and financed by a system under which people would pay their premiums to the state instead of a private health insurance company.

Franken’s successor will most likely be a Democrat, given that the midterm climate is not favorable to Republicans, but GOP state Sen. Karin Housley is another prominent candidate in the U.S. Senate race. She prefers to repeal the Affordable Care Act, saying last year that the “government got in the way and made it more expensive, when all we needed to do was some small fixes, but instead we just turned it upside down and made life a lot harder for a lot of people.”

Correction: May 18, 2018, 2:57 p.m.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Tina Smith as the former Minnesota attorney general. She is the former lieutenant governor.

Top photo: U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., arrives for a vote at the Capitol on Feb. 12, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

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