Even though they didn’t win a majority of seats in the 2016 election, Republicans control the state Senate.
They’ve managed this feat due to an alliance with the eight-member Independent Democratic Conference and the supremely independent Sen. Simcha Felder — all of whom caucus with the Republicans and assure us it’s not about opportunism.
Sen. Jeff Klein, leader of the IDC, has frequently claimed that his group’s defection has actually enabled the passage of progressive legislation.
Now’s the time to put Klein’s claim to the test. A bill is currently going through the Senate which would establish a single-payer healthcare plan in New York State that would grant a baseline of coverage to all New Yorkers. Importantly, Jeff Klein and the IDC are in the strongest possible position to make a vote on this happen. They should prove their liberal bona fides instead of merely insisting they exist.
At this point, the eight members of the IDC will probably say I’m being unfair. After all, they are unanimously cosponsoring the very bill I’m talking about, which now has 30 of 62 senators as sponsors.
What else does the IDC need to do?
The problem is that talk is cheap. These esteemed senators can’t just say they support the bill — they must use their unique position within the Republican caucus to force a vote. They should threaten to split from the GOP otherwise and go back to their actual party.
While they’re doing so, they should remind the GOP that the 2018 election is probably not going to be good for them, and that Sen. Felder alone probably won’t be able to give them a majority after a likely post-Trump shellacking. The GOP will need IDC backing, and it should come at a price to be paid right now.
This crucial bill is one senator away from a 31-31 tie, which would presumably be broken in favor of passage by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul. (The Assembly passed it last year with a resounding majority, and would do so again.) Presumably with some arm twisting of the GOP majority — and maybe a few calls from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to his Republican friends — that last Senate vote could be acquired.
With Congress moving in the direction of decimating the ACA, establishing a public alternative for New Yorkers becomes even more pressing.
The gutting of premium assistance subsidies under the just-passed House bill would devastate the over 2.8 million New Yorkers who get their health insurance through the individual marketplace.
Dramatic pullbacks in the scope of Medicaid reimbursements would mean 14 million fewer lower-to-middle-class families enrolled in the program. And depending on how the Senate version shakes out, New Yorkers could be bereft of any number of crucial consumer protections afforded to them by Obamacare.
It’s a dark cloud, but New York can embrace the silver lining and join the developed world in providing a public healthcare option for all — assuming the final congressional bill doesn’t infringe on states’ rights to create such programs. (That would be unlikely, and arguably unconstitutional.)
The federal government already provides program like this for seniors (Medicare), and it’s ranked extremely high in patient satisfaction and in administrative efficiency. By providing a baseline standard of insurance coverage, New York will cut healthcare costs by removing the profit-driven middlemen that are the insurance dealers.
And unlike the plethora of insurance companies in the market today, a powerful public insurance pool negotiating on behalf on consumers would help drive down the cost of drugs and services.
The time for this is now, regardless of whether Trumpcare passes. The IDC should remember the party that got them elected to the Legislature in the first place, and put their constituents ahead of all else.
Given the political momentum on this issue, if they don’t force the GOP to hold a vote on single-payer, the case that they are Republicans in disguise will grow yet stronger.
Steve Keller is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.