Medicare-for-All Holdout Bill Nelson Has Taken Hundreds of Thousands From Health-Insurance Industry

More and more Americans are waking up to the fact that no other developed nation subjects its citizens to a nightmarishly cruel health-care system that forces people to sell their homes to pay for cancer treatment. Many have realized that, through a combination of strict price controls and/or straight-up nationalized health care, every single person in Europe and Canada pays less on average for health care through taxes while receiving better levels of care. And finally, elected Democrats have begun to campaign on that issue.

But not Florida's Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Nelson, who's up for reelection in 2018 and is one of the more conservative Senate Democrats (he didn't begin supporting same-sex marriage until 2013), has yet to endorse fellow Sen. Bernie Sanders' "Medicare for All" bill despite high-profile cosigns from popular Democratic senators such as California's Kamala Harris and New Jersey's Corey Booker.

Nelson's opposition to single-payer health care could certainly be ideological. Or it could be due to the hundreds of thousands of dollars he's taken from health insurers and other medical-industry profiteers during his 18-year career as an elected official. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CFRP), Nelson has accepted $502,082 from the "health services/health-management organization" sector of the economy since he first ran for Congress in 1998. That category includes major health-insurance companies such as Humana, Cigna, and Aetna, as well as for-profit medical services companies like DaVita, a national chain of dialysis centers.

Single-payer health care would effectively put health-insurance firms out of business, so it's no surprise the industry is backing GOP attempts to repeal Obamacare so its companies can charge patients hundreds of thousands of dollars for hospital visits.

In 2018 alone, Nelson has taken $24,520 from health-care providers and HMOs, good for seventh-most among Senate Democrats.

Missouri's Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill has taken a whopping $100,615 from those companies this year, more than anyone else in the Senate regardless of party. She has been, perhaps not coincidentally, vocally opposed to Sanders' plan.

The CFRP also notes Nelson has also taken an additional $203,624 from the health-care industry during just this election cycle. That category includes hospital and medical associations and pharmaceutical companies, which also stand to lose money if single-payer health care drives medical costs down. Only four other Senate Democrats — and seven senators in general — have taken more health-industry cash than Nelson this year.

Over his entire career, he's taken more than $2.8 million from health-care companies and executives.

Ryan Brown, Nelson's press secretary, told New Times this morning that the senator is currently focused on helping Hurricane Irma victims, and therefore could not immediately explain his stance on health-care.

"Nelson's entire focus right now is on helping people recover from Hurricane Irma," Brown said. "He's been traveling all across the state meeting with people affected by the storm. He's on his way now to Marathon and Big Pine Key with the Coast Guard and will be in Ft. Myers later this afternoon."

In previous statements to the media, Nelson has said he's too busy fighting GOP attacks on Obamacare to back any sort of plan to move the nation's health-care system forward.

“The long and short of it is, I’ve had enough trouble trying to save Obamacare,” Nelson told the Tampa Bay Times in August. “So that’s way on down the road. Let’s get through this first.”

But that line is a classic act of Democratic buck-passing: The Republican Party will always be mounting some sort of campaign to strip laws or rights away from some portion of the electorate. As long as there is more than one political party in Congress, Nelson can claim he's too busy protecting the existing order from evil Republicans to consider whether the country ought to work better. Don't forget that Obamacare still left 27 million people without health coverage, and many of the people with insurance found that premiums were way too high.

In reality, one of three things is true: Nelson is either opposed to Sanders' bill specifically, afraid of the concept of single-payer health care in general, or simply afraid to upset the insurance executives who help fund his campaigns. He has yet to explain which.

But his actions so far this year seem to suggest he isn't onboard with the concept of single-payer just yet: He's been instead trying to find a "bipartisan fix" for the existing Affordable Care Act. Nelson's biggest idea so far includes creating a federal "reinsurance" program to help reimburse health insurance companies for the costs associated with covering sick people.

For now, there are some loose ends involved with Sanders' bill, in that the legislation doesn't explain how the plan would pay for the coverage expansions, either through taxes or otherwise. But the bill has a long way to go before it even possibly sees a vote, and those concerns can easily be addressed. And given the electoral makeup of Congress, the current bill is almost doomed to failure. Supporting the bill right now is mostly an act of Democratic solidarity and coalition-building for the future. It's a way to signal to would-be voters (and the 40 percent of the country that didn't bother to vote) that the typically staid and boring Democratic Party is actually proposing a massive change to help people. Nelson is a seasoned politician, so he clearly understands this — he just isn't hopping along quite yet.

So far, Nelson's 2018 reelection bid has been as exciting as porridge. This is partly due to Nelson himself: He's a pro-business centrist who's happy to reach across the aisle and praise Donald Trump when he launches missiles at people, and partly because he seems terrified to hand his presumed Senate opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, any ammo in what might quickly turn into a contentious campaign.

Since Trump's election remade the political landscape, Nelson has mostly stuck to centrism: He's cheered the president's aforementioned Syrian missile strikes, sponsored a deeply unconstitutional bill that would make it a felony to boycott Israeli companies to protest the country's treatment of the Palestinian people, and on Monday voted to increase the nation's military budget by 10 percent, up to $700 billion.

Nelson has mostly hung on as a self-described "common-sense problem solver" throughout his career. But to win against someone like Scott, Nelson will have to do a better job of explaining why his bipartisan "problem solving" should motivate people to vote for him.

He has some things to boast about to progressives, including a 100 percent pro-choice rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America. But if Scott runs, this reelection campaign will be Nelson's toughest by a mile, and if the 2016 election taught us anything, it's that being a wet blanket on big-ticket issues doesn't endear you to anyone.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.