By Zachary Folk
New York state politicians have been discussing a Medicare for All-type health insurance system for nearly 30 years. But never before has the New York Health Act seemed so achievable as it does today, politicians said at a forum on Monday.
State Senator Robert Jackson, who represents parts of the Upper West Side, along with Washington Heights, Inwood, and Marble Hill, hosted a town hall at the West End Collegiate Church on 77th Street on Monday to discuss the proposed bill with the community. Jackson was joined by Assemblymembers Richard Gottfried and Linda Rosenthal, State Senator Gustavo Rivera, and Carlyn Cowen, chief policy and public affairs officer for the Chinese-American Planning Council. Assemblyman Gottfried and Senator Rivera both chair the health committees in their respective chambers of the legislature. They were joined by several community members and healthcare professionals who testified on the urgent need for universal healthcare.
NYHA would provide all 20 million New Yorkers with the same services currently provided by Medicare, but without copays and deductibles. “It would cover all 20 million of us regardless of age, or income, or immigration status, or anything else,” Gottfried said. In addition to covering primary care, it would also cover things like prescription fees, dental, and long-term care – going far beyond what most plans on the healthcare marketplace offer. NYHA would also eliminate restricted provider networks, allowing patients to choose which doctor they want to see without having to worry about out-of-network charges.
NYHA has been held up in the state legislature for almost 30 years. It first passed in the State Assembly in 1992, where it was championed by Assemblyman Gottfried. It has passed the Assembly three more times since – in 2015, 2016, and 2017 – only to be held up in committee hearings by the Republican-controlled Senate. Since the 2018 election delivered the Senate to the Democrats, the single-payer healthcare bill now has a clearer path to pass both chambers of the legislature.
At the heart of the argument for single-payer healthcare is the financial burden the current system places on individuals. “Let me bottom-line it for you – the system that we have now is unfair at its core,” Senator Rivera explained. “Insurance companies are the ones that make decisions about your healthcare, and I’m sure everyone in this room has had a situation with their families, with their neighbors, or with themselves in which they had to make a decision about their healthcare that has nothing to do with their healthcare and has everything to do with whether or not they can afford that particular thing,” he continued. “You pay premiums. You pay copays. You have to hit a deductible. You actually have to keep in your network. How about we create a system that starts with the basic assumption that healthcare is a human right. Regardless of where you are in the state, who you are in the state, or where you come from – because you’re a human, you’re going to get sick and require care. The system that we have right now is unfair, and it costs a lot.”
According to Assemblyman Gottfried, one of the most important reasons to pass NYHA is the amount it will save both the government and the citizens of New York. According to his estimates, New York loses $55 billion annually by relying on private insurance. “In case you want to know what $55 billion is, the entire capital plan that the MTA has in mind for the next five years is a total of $51 billion. The entire endowment of Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation is $50 billion. That’s what we burn every year in New York because we base almost all of our healthcare system on insurance companies.” According to Gottfried, New Yorkers would save by cutting expenses that come as a result of our privatized system. “We burn over $20 billion in insurance company bureaucracy, and marketing, and profit,” Gottfried said. “We burn more than $20 billion a year in administrative costs that doctors and hospitals have to incur to fight those insurance companies. We burn almost $20 billion in money we give to drug companies because nobody in our system today has the negotiating power to force down their prices.”
As expected, the issue of payment was talked about extensively. To pay for the bill, NYHA would levy a payroll tax on employers within the state. “We would impose a progressive graduated tax, meaning income under $25,000 a year would be exempt from the tax,” Gottfried explained. “Your employer would pay at least 80 percent of the tax levied on your income.” However, Gottfried was also certain that the proposed tax would not create an undue burden on businesses in the state. “What you would be spending on the New York Health Act taxes would be dramatically less then you are now spending on premiums for your workers because of the enormous savings that we would be pulling down,” he said.
Even though there seems to be political willpower to pass Medicare for All if a Democrat were to win in 2020, the legislators at the town hall were determined to pass single-payer in New York regardless of who the candidate is in the presidential election. “We cannot wait until it happens on the national level,” Senator Rivera said. “Certainly, if it happens on the national level – God Bless America. I’ll be the first one that’ll take the bill and dance around with it and throw it out. But until that happens, we not only have the obligation to do it in the state of New York but we have the ability to do it in the state of New York.”
A livestream of the town hall can be found at Senator Jackson’s Twitter feed (@SenatorRJackson). If you have any questions about NYHA, the senator will be hosting another town hall on November 12, at the Y.M. & Y.W.H.A. at 54 Nagle Ave.