Following calls from progressives to include an expansion of Medicare in the infrastructure bill being negotiated in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced late Sunday his support for covering dental, vision, and hearing care under the popular 56-year-old program, backing a proposal long pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“With the current Medicare platform, those three things are just left out, like it’s no big deal. But it is a big deal and we should fix it,” Schumer told reporters at a news conference.
Schumer’s statement echoed recent remarks by Sanders, who last week tweeted, “I do not think it is too radical an idea to say that keeping teeth in your mouth should not be a luxury,” and highlighted how the introduction of Medicare in 1965 ended earlier healthcare injustices in the United States.
“Now, in 2021, we can continue to fulfill the promise of Medicare,” Sanders said.
The progressive push for a bolder and much more comprehensive infrastructure plan stands in stark contrast to the paltry proposal put forth by a bipartisan group of centrist, more corporate-friendly senators.
Schumer’s support for the more expansive vision for infrastructure—a plan that would be ushered through the reconciliation process in the Senate by Sanders, chair of the Budget Committee—comes days after more than 100 healthcare, faith, and labor groups called on the majority leader and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to include Medicare expansion in the American Families Plan, the Biden administration’s infrastructure package.
The organizations said by including robust drug price negotiation in the American Families Plan, lawmakers could reinvest savings in vision, dental, and hearing care for Medicare recipients.
“Let’s keep expanding Medicare until it covers everyone for everything,” said the advocacy group Healthcare Now, which supports Medicare for All, following Schumer’s statement.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, only about a quarter of Medicare beneficiaries have dental coverage, and their benefits “frequently come with additional premiums, cost sharing, and limits on the amount of coverage.”
“If you talk to family medicine or primary care doctors, they will tell you with certainty that ignoring medical issues related to dental, vision and hearing often devolves into far more serious medical problems for people—especially seniors—that cost more to treat and are harder to remedy,” said Schumer on Sunday.
The Democratic leader said lawmakers will have to “galvanize public support” for the proposal in order to pass a far-reaching infrastructure package including investments in healthcare, childcare, and education through reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to pass the package with a party-line vote if the entire caucus backs it.
The National Poll of Healthy Aging last year found that 93% of senior citizens supported including dental coverage in Medicare. Meanwhile, according to the Senior Citizens League, 79% of older voters said in 2018 that all three types of healthcare should be included in the program.
The larger infrastructure plan favored by Sanders and other progressives also includes tax increases for the wealthiest Americans to pay for infrastructure spending and investments that would help working people, a proposal which is also popular with a majority of Americans.
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Julia Conley is a Common Dreams staff writer.