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Lives Are on the Line

A conversation with Adam Gaffney

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed, and what is still the same.

Sarah Jaffe with Adam Gaffney:

Adam Gaffney: I am Adam Gaffney. I am a physician, Pulmonary and Critical Care. I am an instructor at Harvard Medical School and I am active in the organization Physicians for a National Health Program.

Sarah Jaffe: Adam, what the hell are the Republicans trying to do to us?

Adam Gaffney: Well, if you look at this plan, I don’t really consider it much of a health care plan, so much as a conduit of dollars from working class people to rich people. Because, if you look at it, Sarah, it keeps a lot of the Affordable Care Act in place, but it denigrates it, it twists it, and it corrupts it to the benefit of the very wealthy.

Just from the big picture perspective, what are some of the things it is doing? Well, on the one hand, it is cutting programs. There is a major cut in Medicaid. Over ten years, we are talking about greater than $800 billion dollars in Medicaid cuts. That is about a quarter of federal spending.[*] That is going to throw millions of people off of Medicaid. As you know, Medicaid is a program for lower income people that covers a lot of Americans. More than seventy million. That is one thing.

The second thing is it is going to weaken the subsidies that people use to buy health plans on the marketplaces, the so-called “Obamacare” plans. Those are still going to be around—the private insurance industry will still be subsidized—but those subsidies are going to be worse, they are going to be more regressive, and they are going to be less adequate for many folks. That is one side of the ledger.

On the other side of the ledger there’s just a huge redistribution of wealth upwards. Essentially, it gets rid of a variety of taxes that the Affordable Care Act put in place, and that is almost entirely going to benefit the very wealthy. I am going to read you a couple of numbers from the Congressional Budget Office’s latest estimates. We are talking about $127 billion dollars that people making over $200,000 for lower Medicare tax cuts. $145 billion over ten years to the health insurance industry. $172 billion over ten years for lowered capital gains for high income earners. That is just a few. Big picture, we are weakening the health care safety net, we are taking those dollars, and we are funnelling them upward.

SJ: Because, of course, cutting capital gains taxes is very related to health insurance. Right?

AG: They would argue that this is part of the Affordable Care Act and that they are simply repealing it, but functionally speaking, this is an upward redistribution of wealth.

SJ: This is the second time, the Republicans finally managed to butter and squirt this thing through with one vote to spare. What happens next here?

AG: Well, it goes to the Senate, of course. It faces serious headwinds in the Senate. Many people are saying this. A lot of Senators are very wary about it effects, particularly on Medicaid. There is much less room for error in the Senate. They can’t lose more than a couple of Senators and still pass it through. My gut feeling—and I am not very good at political prognostication, so this is worth what you are paying for it—is that they are going to pass something, but it is going to be a much more watered-down version of the House bill. Then, the questions will be “Is the House willing to pass that?” I don’t know.

Don’t forget that the Version 1.0 of Trumpcare was sunk mainly because the resistance from the hard right within the House, the House Freedom Caucus. They did not feel like the wall went far enough. And that was a pretty ugly law. The questions is “How much can the Senate change this bill and still have it be passable in the House?” and that remains to be seen.

SJ: Yes, and there is a definite sense right now that a lot of the so-called “moderates” who wound up voting for this, did so with the expectation that the Senate would change it anyway.

AG: That is certainly the case. I think the expectation and the hope that they would change it. I think that there is a realization on the part of many moderates in the House—so-called “moderates”–that this is an ugly, unpopular bill. The last poll I saw was the one that was being cited around the time of Version 1.0, if you recall, that showed 17 percent support for Trumpcare. That is a dismal level of support.

Part of that is because, let’s remember what Trump actually campaigned on. His health care promises were vague, but they aren’t what he is doing now. He said he wasn’t going to cut Medicaid. He said he wasn’t going to cut Medicare. He basically promised more health care for everybody. So, every time people sort of chuckle and say, “Oh, I can’t wait to see the Trump voters get what they voted for” on the one hand, I think that is really nasty and is not how we should be approaching politics. On the other hand—and you can fault them for being poorly informed—but, Trump did promise something different. He promised more health care, not less. This is just less health care. It is really a quantitative switch on health care spending. It is less money going into the health care safety net and more money going into the pockets of high income people and health care companies.

SJ: I thought it would be interesting because we are talking about, again, this mess of a process of this thing trying to get through both houses and to the president. Talk a little bit about the process by which the Affordable Care Act itself came to be. That was after a summer of yelling at town hall meetings from the Tea Party trying to stop Obamacare. So, the thing that ended up getting through . . . I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that process and where the weak spots in that process were.

AG: I think if you want to look at the weak spots in that process, you have to go back to the beginning, which was a rejection from Day One of single-payer, of something more expansive. In the 2008 primaries, the Democratic Primaries, there was already an assumption that single payer was not going to be an option and basically all of the candidates were opposed to it. That they and Max Baucus certainly conceived of a very much middle-of-the-road compromise bill from Day One. I think the biggest flaw in the Obamacare process was actually before the summer of discontent and before the Tea Party were involved and really starting from the assumption that we had to do something much more narrow.

Lives are on the line, suffering will increase. We have to stop it.

People talk about these sort of origins of the Affordable Care Act. Some people say it is a Heritage [Foundation] plan, which is true only in so far as it incorporated the individual mandate, but it is true that the Affordable Care Act was largely modelled on an even older plan. It was sort of modelled on Nixon’s plan for the 1970s. Ted Kennedy in 1970 put something out there called the Health Security Act which is basically a single payer plan. Nixon put up a counter-proposal that included employer mandates, included expansion of a Medicaid-like program. So, in many ways, even the fatal flaw of Obamacare was its assumption from the beginning that we had to involve the private insurance industry as a key element within our health care system.

SJ: I think it is also worth talking a little bit about the way that the politics around so-called “Obamacare” have played out. You find that people either don’t know that what they have is the Affordable Care Act or people were frustrated because of the jump from being eligible for the Medicaid expansion to then suddenly having to pay out of pocket even for subsidized care. I wonder if you could talk about the way that the construction of this bill made it easier to attack.

AG: Well, the construction of the bill was that it reinforced an existing fragmented system. It did not create a new public benefit. So, as soon as you do that, you are sacrificing popular support. If you look at a program like Medicare which is a universal benefit that you get when you turn sixty-five, obviously, it is extraordinarily popular. People know what they are getting.

Under Obamacare, it is very unclear. Most people are unsure of how they are affected by the law. It doesn’t create social solidarity in the same way that the universal public program does. So, yes, I think that part of the problem with Obamacare is that everything . . . It fragments society. Now, I think the Medicaid expansion was good and it helped a large number of people, but as you say, many people in the middle ground are still being squeezed. Deductibles have been rising dramatically in recent years. It is not the fault of Obamacare. It preceded Obamacare. But, Obamacare has been blamed for it. Co-payments, deductibles, co-insurance are rising. People are finding that although they are insured, they are unable to afford going to the physician or getting a prescription filled. That is a major problem. I think that is feeding into a lot of discontent around this law. I think Obamacare has not created the social support necessary for its own propagation as a result of those inherent weaknesses.

SJ: That said, one of the interesting things that it did do was, at least, reinforce the idea that the government should do something about your health care problems. Then, we do see people, again, reacting to the Republican plan to take away what health care people do have with this intense anger.

AG: Yes. It is amazing—and a lot of people have said this. There has been a whole shift in the way we think about health care towards, at least, an implicit recognition of health care as a right. Charles Krauthammer sort of said this on Fox the other day, he’s a conservative columnist obviously. As he said, and I agree, even conservatives are having to defend their health care plan with this implicit argument that everybody deserves coverage. In a way, that suggests that the battle, in the discursive realm, is actually already being won. People increasingly believe that health care should be a right.

The fact that the National Budget Office released its estimates of Trumpcare and said that twenty-four million people would be uninsured, that was shocking. That was terrible for the bill’s popularity. Nobody could defend that. In a real free market sense, that should be fine. “If twenty-four million people ‘elect’ to not buy insurance, who are we to say that that is a problem?” Nobody really thinks that way outside of a very narrow spectrum of zany and cold-hearted libertarians. I agree. I think there has been an implicit, progressive acceptance of the notion that the federal government, or the government, should insure that everybody has access to health care. That is one good thing that has certainly been happening.

SJ: On that note, how do people stop this thing from proceeding through the Senate?

AG: Well, I think that, first of all, we have to stop it. Even those of us that believe that we need to go well beyond the Affordable Care Act should absolutely recognize the harm that this would do, the deaths that it would cause. A lot of people have put out estimates of potential deaths that could result in something like this. I throw out a number in my recent Guardian piece of around twenty-four thousand people a year if twenty-four million people lose their health insurance. So, lives are on the line, suffering will increase. We have to stop it. It is an all hands on deck approach. I think every Senator has to be picketed, targeted. I think that they should know that if they vote for this that they are going to face the full wrath of the citizenry. I think the more protests, the more activism around this in the very short-term, the better.

It is obviously going to play out one way or the other very soon. The Trumpcare battle is a short-term fight in that if they don’t get this through soon, and they need to use reconciliation to get it passed, it is dead.

SJ: Explain reconciliation. We touched on that talking about the ACA, but for people who don’t understand how that process works . . .

AG: In general, a filibuster in the Senate means that you need to have sixty votes to overcome it. There’s going to be no Democrats went along with the health care bill, the Trumpcare, as far as we know. In order to get around the sixty-vote requirement, there is a provision of reconciliation that allows bills that have a predominantly budgetary impact to be passed with a simple majority. There is a timeline for that. It has to be done relatively soon.

There is actually some question whether some provisions in the House bill would even be allowed to be passed through reconciliation. There is something called the Byrd Rule that describes what sorts of things are allowed to be included. We don’t even know if the House bill in its current form could actually be pass as reconciliation, but regardless, if they want to pass anything, it is going to have to be through reconciliation because unless they really come to the center in some way, they are not going to get enough Democratic senators to go along. Or any Democratic senators to come along to [help them] hit sixty votes.

SJ: You have been part of the fight for single-payer for quite a long time now. Talk about where you think that fight is and why it is important to keep it up even as we are trying to stop the health care apocalypse here.

Health care activism can really be a critical pillar of the left moving forward.

AG: It is critical because the status quo is very unjust. Think of it this way, Trumpcare is going to increase the number of uninsured by twenty-four million. But, in 2016, according to the National Health Interview Survey, there were still twenty-eight million people uninsured today. Then, there are even more people than that who are underinsured who are, again, having high co-payments, high deductibles, unable to go to the doctor, unable to fill prescriptions. The status quo is bad and people are suffering. As long as that is the case, we are going to keep the door open to right wing attacks. Always. There will always be a right wing economic populist like Trump who is going to say they will make health care better. Well, we are opening the door to that if we don’t do something about it.

It is critical that we keep the fight going for a better tomorrow, for a better future of health care, and not just rear-guard defensive battles of keeping things the way they are. The reality is that people are not happy with the way things are today. It is not good enough. The counter argument might be “Well, what is the likelihood? Are we ever going to get single payer passed under this current government?” No, we are not. But we could under the next government. This is the time when we coalesce. This is the time when we put together our arguments, we put together our coalitions, when we begin to turn Senators and representatives to single-payer so that when the political tide turns, we can see this happen. We need the grassroots armies in place now to do that.

SJ: How can people be part of those grassroots armies? Where can they get involved with health care organizing?

AG: There are so many different organizations out there that are doing single payer work. My organization is Physicians for a National Health Program. It is centered around medical professionals, although we certainly have other members as well. There is Healthcare Now. There are various labor organizations who are very involved in this. National Nurses United, which is the largest nurses’ union in the country is very much behind single-payer. I think it depends on where you are and what sort of work you want to do, if you want to get involved in a group that is maybe affiliated with your profession or not. There are a host of groups out there under something called the Coalition for Guaranteed Healthcare that is a coalition of different groups. You can go to that website and see some of those groups. There is lots of activism on this issue.

I think, yet, from a larger perspective, health care activism can really be a critical pillar of the left moving forward. I think it is an issue that does bring people together. I think it is an issue that has resonance with the general population. A Gallup poll from last year finds 58 percent support among the general public for single-payer. I think this is a good cause that could help galvanize energy on the left. Obviously, there are many other campaigns we need to be fighting and working towards. I am not suggesting this be the primary, but I think it could be a really galvanizing movement and campaign on the broader left struggle.

SJ: How can people keep up with you and your work?

AG: Well, like some other people, I am on Twitter @awgaffney and I have a website I would also send people to my organization’s website which is It has some great resources on single payer, on the policy issues behind it so that we can really mount our most effective arguments. Those sorts of resources can be very helpful for that.


[*] The cuts to Medicaid outlays in the AHCA are estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to be $880 billion, which represents between twenty and twenty-five percent of the overall federal budget.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.