WASHINGTON: Former US presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders on Wednesday introduced a revolutionary plan for government-sponsored health care, a proposal that has gained traction among rising-star Democrats.
The bill has slim to no chance of passing a Republican-controlled Congress, but presents an opportunity for Democrats to stake out new policy goals in the era of President Donald Trump as they prepare for upcoming elections.
If it were to become law, the Sanders plan would create perhaps the most ambitious social welfare initiative in US history.
"Health care in America must be a right, not a privilege," Sanders, joined by fellow senators as well as doctors, nurses and patients, said at the rollout of his "Medicare for All" legislation.
"Today we begin the long and difficult struggle to end the international disgrace of the United States, our great nation, being the only major country on earth not to guarantee health care to all of our people."
While support for such a scheme has surged among prominent Democrats -- including several who may launch presidential bids in 2020 -- the party's leaders are not on board with the liberal independent senator.
Sanders, whose so-called "single payer" health insurance proposal was a key part of his run against Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination, said his bill has 16 co-sponsors plus himself -- more than a third of the Senate Democratic caucus.
Five potential presidential contenders -- senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Sanders himself -- attended the rollout, each offering impassioned rationales for taking the dramatic step to government-sponsored healthcare.
"We will not back down," Warren said to cheers. "Everyone gets a right to basic health care."
The legislation, which Sanders said would expand coverage to all uninsured people, came as Republicans introduced their own new Obamacare repeal plan.
The bill unveiled by senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy would effectively turn control of the health care markets over to the 50 US states, providing them block grants to help individuals pay for health care.
"Bernie, this ends your dream of a single-payer health care system for America," Graham said as the bill was presented.
Supporting the Sanders bill helps Democrats broadcast their progressive bona fides to the millions of voters who backed his surprisingly strong White House bid.
- 'Cradle to grave' care -
Sanders' single-payer plan -- in which the government directly shoulders medical costs for its citizens -- would mark a fundamental shift away from the current system built largely around private insurance.
His plan would dramatically expand Medicare, the health insurance program for Americans age 65 and above, whose costs are largely covered by the government.
If the Democrats' 2020 presidential nominee ends up backing Medicare for all, it could frame a titanic clash with Trump, who campaigned heavily on repealing and replacing Barack Obama's signature health reforms that expanded coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.
The most recent effort to repeal and replace Obamacare fell one vote short in the Senate.
The White House swiftly attacked Sanders' plan.
"I can't think of anything worse than having government be more involved in your health care instead of less involved," said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, who is unrelated to the senator.
Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi told The Washington Post her immediate mission is "protecting" Obama's Affordable Care Act.
"What we want is to have as many people as possible, everybody, covered, and I think that's something that we all embrace," she said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has also been non-committal.
A crucial hurdle is money. Sanders did not explain how much his proposal would cost.
But Graham was quick to weigh in, pleading with Republicans to pass his legislation -- or face the "inevitable" shift to what he called Berniecare.
"I know what awaits our country if we fail: the consolidation of health care in the hands of the federal government from cradle to grave (and) unlimited, unsustainable spending that wrecks the federal budget," he said.