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'Medicare for All' debated at town hall Officials, residents discuss Sanders' health care plan in Annapolis

Capital - 1/27/2020

The "Medicare for All" debate came to Annapolis Sunday with a tour of town halls making its fourth stop to discuss Medicare for All, a national health insurance plan that's one of the pivotal aspects of the 2020 presidential election.

Around 70 people came to the Stanton Community Center for the town hall hosted by Maryland Progressive Healthcare Coalition Sunday where physicians, nurses, politicians and activists discussed and pitched support for the government-run single-payer health plan proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal. Sanders is an independent and front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president. Jayapal is a Democrat.

The town hall also acted as a stop on state Sen. Jill Carter's, D-Baltimore, campaign trail. Carter is running for Congress to fill the late. Rep. Elijah Cumming's seat in a special election on Feb. 4.

"We have a for-profit health care system, and it is completely broken both in the state of Maryland and in the country," Carter said.

Maryland spends $54 billion, or 30% of its budget, on health care expenditures, but continues to have 355,000 uninsured residents, Carter said. Maryland is perfectly poised to transition into a single-payer system, Carter said, because the state already works to reduce medical expenditures through the Healthy Maryland Act.

Carter announced Sunday she is introducing a Medicare for All bill in the state Senate this session. Co-sponsored by delegate Gabriel Acevero, the bill is in the drafting stage.

Annapolis resident Phil Ateto, 41, shared his health care story of battling multiple myeloma cancer for nine years. Ateto's journey fighting an incurable cancer is like "a game of Frogger," he said, hopping from one drug to the next when a drug stops showing promising results.

Ateto's insurance initially denied covering a drug called Venetoclax because it was not approved by the FDA for myeloma cancer and therefore considered experimental. Ateto was told his insurance determined covering the drug was "not medically necessary." At the end of December, Ateto was denied again and started declining physically. In an emotional speech, Ateto described how he prepared to experience his last holiday before he died.

The drug was eventually approved by the Vice President Chief Office of CareFirst who made the decision to approve the medication. Ateto has been on the drug for three weeks and his cancer cell counts have been cut in half from what they were a month ago.

"I feel the journey to get to this point in the last couple of months is a further indictment of our health care system," Ateto said.

There are several proposals for how to transition the United States into a single-payer program for all citizens, but Sander's bill, HR 1384, was the focus of Sunday's town hall. Sander's Medicare for All plan promises it would improve public health by having the Department of Health and Human Services cover every person in the United States in a single, national health insurance program. The proposal would cover services like long-term care, surgery, routine doctor checkups as well as vision, hearing and dental insurance.

Sander's goal is to implement universal coverage at an affordable price. There would be no deductibles or copay for patients under the plan, with exceptions for some prescription drugs and some long-term care, according to the bill.

The plan is estimated to cost $32 trillion a year. Sanders has proposed a variety of ways to pay for the plan including payroll taxes for employees, and a broadly applied income tax and further taxes on the wealthy, arguing those costs would be cheaper than what individuals pay for health care now even on private insurance. The government would not allow private insurance companies to cover the same care as Medicare for All. Private insurance companies, Medicaid and Medicare would dissolve and Medicare for All would take its place.

Medicare for All skeptics questioned how the single-payer payer plan would fix flaws in the country's current Medicare system.

"A lot of folks are missing that Medicare, in terms of reimbursement model, what Medicare pays hospitals is not sustainable if everyone is paid on that level," said Larry Ulvila, founder of Insurance Solutions, an employee benefit consulting firm in Annapolis. "Third-party payers, like United Health Care, Cigna, make up the shortfall that Medicare doesn't cover," Ulvila said.

A common narrative in the Medicare for All debate, and a frequent topic of discussion at the town hall, is the United State's inadequacy in handling public health compared to other industrialized European countries. Or the fact that others come to the U.S. to seek treatment despite having single-payer programs in their country.

The public doesn't have to settle for the status quo on that front, said Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, who also attended the town hall.

"Europeans do public health so much better, because the government, the public, the people are the ones paying for health care in a way that is not profit-motivated but motivated by improving the health of those in our jurisdiction," Pittman said.

Caption: Phil Ateto, of Annapolis, is applauded after talking about his struggles with insurance companies while undergoing cancer treatments at a "Medicare For All" town meeting at the Stanton Center in Annapolis.

Joshua McKerrow/Capital Gazette

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