Election New York News Guide

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, right, campaigns with Democratic congressional candidate Zephyr Teachout at Country View Diner on Monday, Nov. 7, 2016, in Brunswick, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Mike Groll

In 2006, the Democratic challenger in New York's 20th Congressional District race announced her support for a different approach to health care: allowing Americans to buy into Medicare

The challenger was Kirsten Gillibrand, a political newcomer who ran against incumbent U.S. Rep. John Sweeney, a Republican. 

"I think we need more competition in the system," Gillibrand told the Albany Times-Union in 2006. "The whole health care system is being framed by the health care industry. What Americans need to do is focus on a preventative care system." 

Her stance was outlined on the health care section of her campaign website. The health care solution plan she touted included "a measure to allow anyone to buy into Medicare." 

Gillibrand's position was significant at the time. She was in a tight race against Sweeney, who was seeking his fifth term in Congress. The "Medicare-for-all" concept was supported by a small number of Democrats, most of whom hailed from deep blue districts. 

New York's 20th district, as of Nov. 1, 2006, had nearly 83,000 more Republicans than Democrats. But Gillibrand defeated Sweeney — one of several key pickups for Democrats in a year when they won control of the House. 

While Medicare for all was still a long shot, Gillibrand remained a supporter. Her position didn't change in 2009, when she was appointed to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. (Clinton became secretary of state in President Barack Obama's administration.) 

Gillibrand's ascension to the Senate came at a pivotal time for Democrats. The party had control of the White House and Congress and their top priority was health care reform. 

One of the provisions considered was a public insurance option — a measure that would allow Americans to buy into Medicare. Gillibrand advocated for including a public option in the final health care bill.

"I truly believe that health care is a right, not a privilege, and that the time for real reform — including a public option — is now," she wrote on Daily Kos, a progressive blog, in 2009. 

The product of the Democrats' push was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The bill was signed by Obama in 2010. It contained many provisions, but it didn't include a public insurance option. 

Calls for a public option have renewed as Republicans attempt to dismantle or repeal the Affordable Care Act, Obama's signature achievement. Like the Democrats seven years ago, the GOP has control of the White House and Congress. So far, their attempts to roll back the health care law have been unsuccessful. 

As Republicans continue to discuss repealing the Affordable Care Act, Democrats are pushing for a different kind of change.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, will introduce a bill to establish a single-payer health insurance program. The legislation would allow all Americans to buy into Medicare. 

Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said Tuesday that she will be an original cosponsor of the bill. She repeated what she said eight years — that health care "should be a right, not a privilege." 

She played a role in crafting Sanders' bill. The legislation will include a provision she wrote allowing individuals to buy into a public option during the four-year transition period to the single-payer insurance system. 

"This would create an affordable, public health care plan that's available to any American to purchase through the already-existing insurance exchanges," she said. 

There is a political aspect to all of this. Many observers noted that some of the early supporters of Sanders' bill, including Gillibrand, have been mentioned as possible 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.

The notion that Gillibrand is doing this for political gain is nothing new. Similar claims were made about her in 2009 when she came out in support of the public option. At the time, there were New York Democrats considering whether to challenge her in a 2010 primary. 

But her position is consistent with previous public statements dating back to 2006. She supported a public option, specifically Medicare for all, as a congressional candidate. That stance remained during her time as a congresswoman and continued when she became a U.S. senator. 

Over the summer, Gillibrand launched a series of town hall meetings in New York. During the first forum, which was held at Syracuse University, she reiterated her support of Medicare for all. 

"As I've been traveling around New York, the number one thing I keep hearing from New Yorkers is that people are very worried that their health care is still too expensive," she said. "Under the health care system we have now, too many insurance companies continue to value their profits more than they value the people they are supposed to be helping. It's time for something better.

"So I'll be fighting with Bernie — and I hope with all of you — to pass Medicare-for-All and finally give every American access to affordable, good-quality health care." 

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