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Sanders Seeks Role as Senate Health Chair With “Focus on Universal Health Care”

As chair of the HELP committee, he would focus on Medicare for All, workers’ rights and affordable higher education.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., on September 24, 2020.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) announced on Thursday that he is seeking to become the chair of a powerful Senate committee that has wide influence over what he is planning to prioritize in the role: Medicare for All, workers’ rights and affordable college.

The Vermont senator is likely to take the helm of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, where he has previously served as a member. From the top spot, he will be able to steer the committee’s priorities on health policy and other areas of special interest to progressives.

“As chairman of the committee, he will focus on universal healthcare, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, increasing access to higher education, and protecting workers’ rights on the job,” Sanders’s communications director Mike Casca said in a statement.

Sanders’s HELP chairmanship could lead to an advancement in priorities that he has previously advocated for but that have not necessarily taken hold among other members of Congress; he could, for instance, pursue legislation like his bipartisan proposal to safely import drugs from other countries in order to lower prices for patients.

Meanwhile, he would have a larger, more visible platform to champion Medicare for All, for which he has advocated relentlessly for years; earlier this year, he introduced legislation to establish Medicare for All in the U.S., which is the only wealthy country in the world without a universal health care system. Though the idea is far from having enough votes to pass, his advocacy could help sway senators to his side.

“I think there’s a caricature out there of Bernie Sanders that doesn’t take note of the fact that the guy is a politician who has been doing this for a really long time,” Social Security Works executive director Alex Lawson told The Washington Post. “He knows how to work with his colleagues.”

In lieu of Medicare for All, for instance, Sanders has spent the last couple of years relentlessly advocating for the lowering of prescription drug prices, introducing bills to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and commissioning reports to highlight the issue.

He has also pushed for the expansion of Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing — a measure that has support among a wide set of Democrats in the Senate, but that has been rejected by pharma-funded conservative Democrats Senators Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) and Joe Manchin (West Virginia).

Sanders’s chairmanship could be a headache for the pharmaceutical industry, which is notorious for being the most powerful lobby in Washington. As one pharmaceutical lobbyist told The Washington Post, “He’ll go after [the drug companies] at every turn, and they only have a couple friends left in the caucus any more so it’s going to be tough.”

The HELP Committee also has wide jurisdiction over federal labor regulations on issues like wages and working conditions, meaning that Sanders’s chairmanship could advance his agenda to expand workers’ rights in a pivotal time for the labor movement. Sanders has tried to get the federal minimum wage raised to $15 an hour — an issue that falls under the purview of the HELP Committee — but was shot down by Sinema and Manchin in 2021.

Other issues like the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would massively increase workers’ union and collective bargaining rights, also fall under the HELP Committee’s jurisdiction, and could see movement under Sanders. The bill passed the House last year but never came to a vote in the Senate, where it only went as far as being referred to the HELP committee. Sanders could direct the committee to take a vote on the bill or hold hearings on the proposal and on workers’ rights at large.

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