I am proud to be assuming the chairmanship of the US Senate’s health, education, labor and pensions committee (Help), a committee with wide jurisdiction over some of the most important issues facing the American people. As I move into that position I’m thinking about how we can best address some of the serious challenges facing my fellow Vermonters and working families all across the country.
Today, in terms of health, we have a dysfunctional healthcare system in which we spend the astronomical and unsustainable sum of nearly $13,000 for every man, woman and child, twice as much as most developed countries and almost 20% of our GDP. Yet, despite that huge expenditure, 85 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured and we have worse health outcomes and lower life expectancy than many other nations. While the insurance companies make huge profits, over 500,000 people declare bankruptcy each year from medically related debt, and over 68,000 die because they can’t afford the care they need. Our complicated and fragmented system is so broken that it cannot even produce the number of doctors, nurses, dentists and mental health personnel that we desperately need.
As a nation, we must focus on the reality that the function of a rational healthcare system is to provide quality care for all, not simply huge profits for the insurance industry.
Today, as we pay by far the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, the pharmaceutical industry is making record-breaking profits and more than a few executives in drug companies are becoming billionaires. Meanwhile, despite billions in government investment in prescription drug research and development, nearly one out of four Americans are unable to afford the medicine their doctors prescribe and too many seniors are splitting their lifesaving pills in half because they can’t afford them. And because Medicare doesn’t cover dental, hearing and vision, there are millions of seniors who are trying to survive without these basic healthcare needs.
But it’s not just our healthcare “system” which needs a major overhaul. In terms of education, we need to take a hard look at how we are educating our kids – from childcare to graduate school.
While psychologists tell us that the first four years of life are the most important in terms of human intellectual and emotional growth, it’s hard to deny that our childcare system is in disarray. The cost is unaffordable for many working parents, there are not enough slots available, the quality is spotty and the pay and benefits childcare workers receive is unconscionably low. This is not how we should be treating our children, the future of America.
The situation in K-12 education is not much better. For a variety of reasons – lack of respect, low pay, the stress of Covid and the politicization of school boards – thousands of gifted and dedicated teachers are quitting the profession, leaving students unprepared for the challenges they face as they enter the adult world. The future of this country depends upon the quality of education we provide our kids, and there is no reason why we cannot create the best public educational system in the world.
In terms of higher education, we face the absurd situation of hundreds of thousands of bright young people who have the desire and ability to get a college education but cannot do so because their families lack the money. How many great doctors, scientists, and teachers are we losing as a result? There are also millions of young people who need training in order to become skilled mechanics, carpenters, welders, and electricians who are not getting the post-high school training they need. Further, 45 million Americans are struggling with student debt – sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In terms of labor and our economy, we must recognize that we live in a period of more income and wealth inequality than at any time in the last hundred years. While the very rich become richer and three people now own more wealth than the bottom half of American society, 60% of American workers live paycheck to paycheck and millions are trying to exist on starvation wages. Meanwhile, we have a pathetic federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour which has not been raised since 2009.
As more and more workers try to improve their standard of living by forming unions, they are facing fierce and illegal union busting from such employers as Starbucks, Amazon, McDonalds and other major employers.
There is a lot of discussion in the media about how “divided” our nation is and, on many issues, that is absolutely true. But what we don’t appreciate is that on some of the most important issues facing our country the American people – Democrats, Republicans, independents – are quite united.
The American people know we are being ripped off by the drug companies and they want lower prescription drugs prices.
The American people know that our healthcare system is outrageously expensive and they want universal and lower cost health care.
The American people know that education is essential to our lives and the future of this country and they want high quality and affordable education from childcare to graduate school.
The American people know that no one can survive on a $7.25-an-hour minimum wage, and they want to raise the minimum wage to a living wage.
The American people know that workers have a constitutional right to form unions and that corporations that engage in illegal union busting activities must be held accountable.
And these are just a few of the issues within the jurisdiction of the Help committee that a strong majority of the American people want us to address.
At a time when too many Americans are giving up on democracy, now is the time to attempt to restore faith in our government. Now is the time for Congress to have the courage to take on the lobbyists and powerful special interests and show the American people that our government can work for them, and not just the 1%. Let’s do it.
Bernie Sanders is a US senator, and the ranking member of the Senate budget committee. He represents the state of Vermont, and is the longest-serving independent in the history of Congress