Government & Politics

Davids feels heat from the left as activists push her to support Medicare-for-all

Judy Snyder, a Merriam mental health therapist, didn’t support Sharice Davids during last year’s Democratic primary.

She thought the first-time Congressional candidate was hedging on her support for Medicare-for all, the sweeping proposal to create a single, government-run health plan for all Americans.

But once she was the party’s nominee in Kansas’ 3rd District, Snyder jumped on board, knocking on more than 300 doors urging voters to elect Davids and other Democrats. On nearly every doorstep, she said, health care was among the chief concerns.

She was ecstatic that Davids, D-Kansas, unseated four-term incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder, and confident she could be convinced to get behind Medicare-for-all.

Now, with Davids officially on record opposing the plan, excitement has become frustration.

“Frustrated and disappointed,” she said.

On Tuesday, the U.S. House Rules Committee held the first public hearing on the idea, which has become a 2020 litmus test for liberals. Medicare-for-all would ensure universal coverage, but it would also eliminate current private insurance plans and cost an estimated $30-$40 trillion over 10 years.

Davids appeared open to a single-payer system as a candidate last year, but officially came out against the bill in its current form last month because it eliminates employer-based insurance.

Davids prefers public health care as an option, an idea initially pursued by President Barack Obama a decade ago but dropped from his Affordable Care Act.

“If we had the public option— if that idea were adopted— and people wanted to switch over, then they could. But I also don’t think we should be forcing people to get off the health care plan that they think is working for them,” Davids said in an interview Thursday.

”I don’t think any massive system should be trying to change things super quickly.”

Her stance reflects the challenge of representing a suburban district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats. It makes her not only a top target for the GOP heading into 2020, but a disappointment to some supporters on the left. During her short time in office, she’s also drawn criticism from the party’s progressive wing for her opposition to the Green New Deal and her willingness to accept corporate PAC campaign donations.

Her stance on Medicare-for-all has roused the most outrage among liberals in her district. Many of them backed her in the November election only after supporting another Democrat in the 2018 primary – Brent Welder, who framed his candidacy around the issue before losing to Davids by 3 percentage points in a six-way race.

The divide in Davids’ district reflects a larger national fight Democrats are waging in the presidential campaign and Congress.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, put Medicare-for-all in the national conversation during his 2016 presidential campaign and the idea has continued to gain momentum as he pursues another run for the White House.

Democrats recaptured the U.S. House last year largely based on promises to address health care. Now the party is forced to reckon with differences between those pushing for incremental changes, aimed at shoring up the ACA, and those who believe the time is finally right to upend the entire system with a single government insurance plan for all Americans.

It’s a balancing act that even seasoned lawmakers are struggling to manage.

One of Davids’ closest allies in Congress, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, signed on as a co-sponsor to the House Medicare-for-all bill.

But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to vote for it.

Cleaver said he wanted to express his support for universal health coverage, but said that if it actually had a chance to become law he’d demand major changes. Cleaver said the bill in its current form would hurt rural hospitals because Medicare does not compensate providers at the same rate as private insurance.

“Medicare-for-all sounds good for progressives. I’m a progressive,” Cleaver said. “But when you get into the weeds and start talking about people who want to keep the coverage they have, you know, it becomes a little shaky.”

‘That’s not leadership’

In Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District, backers of Medicare-for-all are getting organized.

Last month, around two dozen members of the Metro KC Medicare for All Coalition met at the Johnson County Central Resource Library in Overland Park to strategize.

The group exchanged horror stories about themselves and loved ones navigating the health care system. Then they laid a series of plans, all designed to turn the heat up on Davids: push local governments to pass resolutions in support of Medicare-for-all; canvass neighborhoods and local events, and organize phone banks to educate voters.

“If her constituents push her on things like this and make clear what they want, I like to believe she’d be open to changing her mind,” said Matt Erickson, 32, of Prairie Village.

Angelica Wilcox was inspired to overhaul the system because of her personal experience with Type 1 diabetes, a diagnosis she received 21 years ago this month.

She counts herself lucky.

“I was born into a middle class family who had insurance and could afford my hospital stay, insulin, doctors’ visits, dietician appointments, and a few years at diabetes camp,” said Wilcox, 33 of Olathe. “Many are not so lucky. They ration insulin or beg online groups for some extra Humalog or Lantus (types of insulin).”

Davids’ opposition to Medicare-for-all is a major sticking point for Wilcox, who helped organize the Overland Park meeting.

“My representative clearly isn’t getting our message that this issue is important to us,” Wilcox said, later adding: “I would not be able to support Sharice in 2020 if she has not yet come out strongly in favor of... Medicare-for-all. I would welcome a primary opponent much further to her left.”

Davids knows that some constituents are upset, but she said she’s trying to balance the concerns of the entire district.

“The folks who are the most vocal and the most supportive of any policy issue absolutely should be reaching out to my office and coming to the town halls,” Davids said.

“There are people who that is the thing they want done. There are also people who are diametrically opposed to Medicare-for-all in our district,” she said. “My job is to try figure out where can we come to consensus and get affordable access to health care for everybody.”

During the campaign Davids said she supported a single-payer system as a long-term policy goal, even going so far as to tell a Lenexa town hall last June that she would co-sponsor a Medicare-for-all bill.

But she also said repeatedly that a single-payer system is not realistic while Republicans control the White House.

“Of course universal health care coverage is the ultimate goal and ‘Medicare-for-all’ is one of the ways it can happen… But we need to be focused on things we can do,” Davids told The Star in September.

Theresa Hyde of Overland Park, an early supporter of Davids, believes she would “absolutely” support Medicare-for-all if it had a chance to become law.

Unlike many of her fellow Medicare-for-all supporters at the planning meeting last month, Hyde says she’s willing to give Davids a pass on the issue for now.

“I see where Sharice is coming from,” said Hyde, a retired health care consultant and hospital chief information officer. “We just elected someone who is infinitely more aligned with my values than Kevin Yoder, and I don’t want her to blow it on a symbolic stand that won’t get done in the current climate in Washington.”

Pam Darpel of Olathe, who also attended the gathering, isn’t quite as forgiving.

“I voted for her to do the right thing,” she said. “What she’s doing right now, that’s not leadership.”

‘Medicare for America’

A February poll from CNN found that 54 percent of Americans supported a national health insurance program even if it meant paying higher taxes compared to 41 percent who opposed it.

However, the support dropped to 40 percent if it meant completely replacing private insurance plans. Opposition rose to 54 percent.

Republicans have honed in on the elimination of 180 million private plans as their strongest argument against the bill. Some Democrats have looked for a way to provide universal coverage without taking this step.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, introduced legislation Wednesday that would expand Medicare to cover the entire U.S. population and add new dental and vision coverage. But it would allow people to opt out and keep their employer-provided insurance if those plans met certain standards.

“It makes the transition to universal health coverage much easier to build on what we have now,” DeLauro said on a call with reporters Wednesday.

The bill’s title, “Medicare For America,” bears striking similarity to Sanders’ “Medicare For All” proposal. It was crafted by the Center for American Progress (CAP), an influential Democratic-leaning think tank headed by former Hillary Clinton adviser Neera Tanden, who has clashed with Sanders’ campaign.

“We’re addressing the concern that millions of Americans who have employer-based coverage want to keep it,” said Tanden, who argued more people would gradually choose to sign up for the expanded Medicare program if it works well.

Davids is scheduled to speak at the CAP ideas conference later this month, but she said that she has not yet reviewed the plan.

“I’m eager to read those bills and read about those ideas because it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said.

But supporters of a single-payer system say this plan and other incremental alternatives to Medicare-for-all, such as a public option proposal touted by former Vice President Joe Biden, fall short of the true overhaul the system needs.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, main House sponsor of Medicare-for-all, told The Star that if “you’re really going to address the deep sickness within our health care system you have to take on the whole role of private insurance companies and you’ve got to address the cost aspects of that system. “

Jayapal said she has “a lot of respect for Sharice,” and she wants to hear Davids’ issues with Medicare-for-all directly to “see if I can assuage some of those concerns.” She contended that consumers would have a greater choice of providers under a single-payer system.

“Republicans would you like you to believe is that Medicare-for-all would take away the health care that you have,” she said. “What they don’t want to point out is that people would actually have more choice—who are covered by employer-based coverage right now, they would have more choice, less costs. And the only thing that would be cut out is insurance companies. And I don’t know anybody who really loves dealing with insurance companies.”

Davids’ supporters say she’s doing her job and representing her moderate-leaning district, which includes affluent suburbs in Johnson County, rural areas in Miami County and the urban core of Kansas City, Kansas.

Melissa Cheatham, an Overland Park resident who volunteered on Davids’ campaign, said primary voters had the choice of Welder, a Sanders-backed candidate who made Medicare-for-all the centerpiece of his message, and they opted for Davids instead.

“My perception is that Rep. Davids is very cautious and I think people in this district are going to be glad to see someone who’s very thoughtful,” said Cheatham, a stay-at-home mom who receives her insurance through her husband’s business. “It’s more important to make incremental progress than to make big statements that don’t go anywhere.”

As Davids’ cautiously weighs proposals, she has signed onto more incremental legislation to lower prescription drug costs and to strengthen protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

Cheatham argued that Davids’ victories over Welder and Yoder reflected voters’ interest in a moderate approach.

They were angry with Yoder over his vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but that doesn’t mean they all want to give up their private insurance, Cheatham said.

Yoder’s campaign aired ads in 2018 that accused Davids of wanting “to abolish all private employer-provided insurance” and said that her “socialist dreams would be a nightmare for America.”

Cheatham said that while she knocked doors in support of Davids she met voters who had seen the ads.

“I think people did see a lot of those attack ads,” she said, “and I think they were reassured to know that she was that pragmatic progressive.”

Snyder, the Merriam resident who canvassed for Davids last fall in the hopes she’d end up backing Medicare-for-all, says she still supports her.

“I don’t want to tear Sharice down by any stretch,” Snyder said. “We have to fight for more Democrats, not sabotage the ones we have. I would just love to sit down with her and help her understand that (Medicare-for-all) is doable. I would love to have that conversation.”

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Jason Hancock is The Star’s lead political reporter, providing coverage of government and politics on both sides of the state line. A three-time National Headliner Award winner, he has written about politics for more than a decade for news organizations across the Midwest.
Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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