WASHINGTON (CN) - Kicking off a conference of health care advocates Thursday, Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren put a personal touch on what could be a focal point of their expected presidential bids in 2020.
The progressive Democrats appeared this morning at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill to deliver keynote addresses for the 23rd annual Health Action Conference.
Families USA, which is hosting the three-day workshop series, has opposed Republican efforts to repeal and replace the federal health care law, and Booker and Warren told the crowd of several hundred this morning that they are still fighting to provide all Americans with quality, affordable health care.
Representing New Jersey in the Senate since 2013, Booker spoke unscripted and repeatedly invoked the civil rights movement, drawing several rounds of applause and cheers.
“I ask you with all of my heart, not to concede to the ideals of inevitability,” Booker said. “Martin Luther King did say that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice. But it doesn’t just bend. We have got to be the benders.”
Booker laid out several successes of the last administration’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in a roughly 30-minute address, but also noted that more work needs to be done.
The law has lowered the number of uninsured Americans, cut personal bankruptcies by half, and narrowed the gap in access to health care between white-, black- and Hispanic-Americans, Booker said.
Yet black women are still 3 to 4 times more likely to die during childbirth than white women, Booker added. Black children meanwhile are twice as likely to die during childbirth, he continued.
"Where is the liberty when you are chained to the fear of not knowing if one of your children gets sick or injured whether you'll be able to afford to take care of them," Booker said. "Where is the liberty when you are constricted by terrible bills that are piling up because of the cost of prescription drugs."
In her turn at the podium, Sen. Warren of Massachusetts recounted how the health care system treated her family, growing up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
"We weren't rich, we weren't poor," Warren said. "But one medical incident and a trip to the hospital turned our lives upside down."
Warren was 12 when her father had a heart attack, not long after he found steady work as a carpet salesman at Montgomery Ward.
The family spent years paying off medical bills, lost their Oldsmobile station wagon — which Warren noted had air conditioning — and nearly lost their house.
Her mom got a job at Sears, while Warren took babysitting jobs and waitressed to earn some money.
The family eventually had to move into an apartment. She said her parents were left with no savings and no retirement.
"They never rebuilt," Warren said.
Prior to entering politics, Warren said her research team at the University of Texas where she taught law was among the first to identify medical problems as a key cause of bankruptcy.
Warren blamed weaknesses in federal and state laws with letting insurance companies drive up costs for American consumers. "I say it is time to flip the script,” she said.
Echoing Booker, Warren said she would defend former President Obama's federal health care law, but that Americans have to play offense on this issue.
Massachusetts touts the highest insured rate in the country, she said. But that's because the state requires insurers to offer affordable plans with low upfront costs and low premiums. Though not a perfect system, Warren said insurers in Massachusetts spend 92 percent of premiums to cover what they pay out.
In her view, insurers should be required to offer health insurance plans that are as affordable as Medicare and Medicaid.
Both Booker and Warren have voiced support for the Medicaid for All proposal put forth by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Brad Woodhouse with the Protect Our Care Coalition led into the keynote addresses this morning by calling on Democrats to focus on preserving - and more importantly improving - the Affordable Care Act.
According to an August 2017 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 60 percent of Americans were glad Congress failed to repeal the federal health care law, while 57 percent want to see a bipartisan effort to improve it.
Booker downplayed Republican control of government during his speech, and implored conference attendants to continue their grassroots work.
“I promise you there will be battles won in these next three years and battles lost. But remember those marches on Selma,” Booker said. “They didn’t reach their destination right away. But their mere standing up for righteousness and justice and love set forth shock waves into history that transformed generations yet to come.
“I promise you,” Booker added, “that we will be a nation with health care for all.”
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