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Republicans’ coming 2018 attack: single-payer would “abolish the VA”

It doesn't — at least as Bernie Sanders and Democrats imagine it now.

Bernie Sanders Holds Kentucky Rally To Urge McConnell Not To Repeal ACA Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Top Republican strategists say they will accuse Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterms of wanting to eliminate the US Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides health insurance for 9 million veterans.

Their proof for this explosive charge: Democrats’ increasing embrace of single-payer health care, which aims to create one government insurer for virtually all Americans.

“I can’t wait to run ads against Democrats saying they want to abolish the VA, Medicare Part D, and want complete government control of health care,” Matt Gorman, communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Fox News earlier this week. He was referring to single-payer health care, NRCC press secretary Jesse Hunt confirmed in an interview Thursday.

Democrats have no plans to either abolish the VA or threaten the health insurance of veterans. The single-payer bills Democrats have written in Congress contain special exemptions that would ensure the new national single-payer system doesn’t affect the VA, even while extending insurance to the 28 million Americans who currently lack it.

But coming a couple of weeks before Sen. Bernie Sanders is expected to trigger a renewed national debate by releasing his new single-payer bill, this new GOP attack sets the stage for the clash over Medicare-for-all — and whether Republicans can target the proposal for more than just its price tag.

Democrats’ single-payer bill does not go after the VA

Under a true single-payer health care system, the federal government would indeed nationalize the entire insurance industry and add every American to one government insurer. That’s why congressional Democrats’ single-payer bills would force hundreds of millions of Americans who get their insurance from Medicare or through their employer to have to switch over to the new government single-payer.

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Rep. John Conyers, right, is the author of a single-payer bill in the House that would exempt the VA.
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But the congressional Democrats who have written single-payer bills have carved out exemptions specifically for the VA.

Rep. John Conyers’s (D-MI) single-payer bill, which more than 60 percent of House Democrats have now co-sponsored, includes a provision explicitly stating that the VA and veterans’ benefits will “remain independent” of the new single-payer system, at least in the first decade. At the end of those 10 years, Congress will then “reevaluate whether such programs shall remain independent or be integrated into the Medicare For All Program,” the bill states.

In the Senate, Sanders is expected to release a new version of his single-payer bill in early September. But the 2013 version of his single-payer proposal — the only existing single-payer bill in the Senate — says “nothing in this Act shall affect the eligibility of veterans for the medical benefits and services” provided through the VA. An aide to Sanders confirmed that the provision exempting the VA from the new single-payer insurer will remain in the upcoming bill.

“We leave the VA and Indian Health Service completely intact,” said Josh Miller-Lewis, Sanders’s spokesperson, in an interview. “This attack is a total misrepresentation of our bill and of Rep. Conyers’ bill.”

Asked why the NRCC believes single-payer would abolish the VA, Hunt pointed to text in Conyers’s bill and to an article in the Nation by Joshua Holland titled, “Medicare-For-All Isn’t The Solution For Universal Health Care.” In that article, Holland writes that single-payer would entail “forcing over 70 percent of the adult population — including tens of millions of people who have decent coverage from their employer or their union, or the Veteran’s Administration, or the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program — to give up their current insurance for Medicare.” But the bill only says that the VA will remain independent of the single-payer system and then be reevaluated after 10 years.

Republicans say they’re desperate to go after Democrats on single-payer

Of course, conservatives normally level the exact opposite objection against single-payer health care. They tend to say not that it would shrink the government’s role in providing health care (by cutting the VA, for instance), but that doing so would radically expand it.

But Republicans are prepared to accuse single-payer Democrats of both advancing an unaffordable new entitlement program and trying to cripple existing government health insurance programs.

“Any conversation with voters about what direction we’re going with health care needs to include what the Democrats would do if they had their druthers,” Hunt said. “They’d move the country further to the left, with a single-payer European health care system which would include massive tax increases and a host of issues,” including abolishing the VA.

Democrats may feel like they’ve seen this playbook before. In 2012, Mitt Romney tried to tie Barack Obama to Medicare cuts that would pay for a “massive new government program that’s not for you” — Obamacare. (As PolitiFact noted at the time, Obamacare didn’t cut benefits to seniors but tried to scale back the federal government’s payments to private insurers under Medicare Advantage and allowed the program to grow substantially.)

Progressives are optimistic that single-payer can overcome these kinds of attacks. They point to polls suggesting that many more Americans now believe the government is responsible for providing universal coverage than they did a few years ago or even a few months ago.

But Hunt said Republicans were champing at the bit for Senate Democratic candidates to publicly embrace Sanders’s bill.

“Democrats have an end game, which is to turn the health care system into single-payer — and we’re going to make sure voters know that,” Hunt said. “The idea that government is making the bulk of the decisions when it comes to health care — we want voters to know that Democrats support that.”

Sanders, however, thinks the public will be on his side.