WASHINGTON - Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., released a new version of his "Medicare-for-all" plan on Wednesday, putting a spotlight on the debate among 2020 Democratic presidential contenders over the future of America's health-care system.
At an event on Capitol Hill, Sanders unveiled his latest version of a single-payer plan, which would replace the current patchwork of public and private insurers with a government-run system that Sanders argues would ultimately save consumers money.
Sanders said he is seeking to replace "a dysfunctional system which allows the top five health insurance companies to make over $20 billion in profits last year."
Video: With a landslide of Democratic 2020 candidates supporting Medicare-for-All and more than half the country backing some form of a national health plan, things get murkier when you dig into the details. (Jenny Starrs, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)
"The American people are increasingly clear," he said. "They want a health care system which guarantees health care to all Americans as a right. They want a health-care system which will lower health care costs and save them money."
Republicans and some prominent Democrats have sought to cast "Medicare-for-all" plans as astronomically costly - some studies have suggested they could increase government spending on health care by more than $25 trillion over a decade. The critics also portray the plans as incredibly complicated to implement, given the vast array of doctors, hospitals and insurers that would be affected.
Sanders has acknowledged that citizens could pay more in taxes, but he argues that they would ultimately save thousands of dollars a year on out-of-pocket health-care costs. For most families, the higher taxes would be more than offset by what they would save on private premiums and deductibles, Sanders says.
He also argues that his program would curtail overall health-care spending in the United States because the traditional Medicare program spends only 2 percent of its costs on administration, far less than private health insurance companies.
Sanders' new bill is similar to past legislation he has introduced but now includes coverage for long-term care services, benefits that further increase the cost.
Sanders introduced his plan inside a crowded room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, flanked by activists and medical industry professionals. They stood in front a blue banner framed by two American flags and bearing the slogan, "Health care is a right."
The event underscored how much headway Sanders has made among Democrats in pushing what was viewed as a fringe idea during his last presidential bid.
The party's eventual 2016 nominee, Hillary Clinton, dismissed Sanders' vision as impractical, given how difficult it was to pass President Barack Obama's less ambitious Affordable Care Act in 2010.
This cycle, at least 10 other Democratic presidential hopefuls support some version of a single-payer plan, and four of Sanders' Senate colleagues eyeing the White House - Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts - have signed on to the bill that he is introducing in the chamber.
Gillibrand offered remarks at Wednesday's event.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who was also there, said, "Medicare for all is a dream. It's called the American dream."
Some 2020 Democratic contenders, including Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, have criticized Sanders' measure as politically infeasible. Hickenlooper has said that Medicare-for-all should not be "a litmus test of what it takes to be a good Democrat."
In an attempt to show growing support for the bill, Sanders announced that his latest Medicare-for-all legislation has been endorsed by 63 national organizations and unions - double the number from two years ago.
On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is among those who have voiced skepticism about moving to a single-payer system. For now, Democratic leaders have been more focused preserving the Affordable Care Act amid the Trump administration's attempts to dismantle it.
President Donald Trump has pledged to produce new legislation to replace the ACA.
Even before Sanders formally unveiled his plan on Wednesday, White House officials were attacking it. During an appearance on Fox News, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway called Medicare-for-all "a bad deal for America."
"This is a government takeover," she said. "I gave birth four times. I didn't want Uncle Sam and Big Brother in there with me."
Republican lawmakers and advocacy groups piled on after the event.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., released a letter he wrote to the Congressional Budget Office seeking clarity on the exact cost of Sanders' plan, which he characterized as "a massive amount of spending."
"Congress must understand the full impact of this proposal, along with the consequences for hospitals, health care providers, and patients," Barrasso wrote.
The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC that seeks to elect more Republicans to the chamber, lambasted Sanders' plan.
"Bernie Sanders' plan to destroy the Medicare program and socialize our healthcare is now Democratic Party dogma," the group's president, Steven Law, said in a statement. "Democrat Senate candidates can try to hide, but we will make certain voters understand that Democrats are lining up behind abolishing private insurance, ruining Medicare, restricting medical choices, raising taxes on hardworking families, and exploding the deficit."
This article was written by John Wagner and Sean Sullivan, reporters for The Washington Post.