Bennet on health care, education, climate (and his presidential ambitions)

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, spoke with reporters during the Hot Issues in Health Conference on Friday, sponsored by the Colorado Health Institute.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet sidestepped the issue of whether he’s running for president in an appearance Friday, but he did address a number of issues that a presidential candidate might.

The Colorado Democrat spoke during the Hot Issues in Health Conference on Friday, sponsored by the Colorado Health Institute, and also talked with reporters.

Bennet’s topics included Medicare X, a bill he is sponsoring with fellow Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. He said the measure would provide rural Coloradans with new options for health care.

He also touched on the 2020 census (he’s against the controversial question about citizenship proposed by the Trump administration) and the Supreme Court's landmark 2010 Citizens United decision on campaign finance (which he said has changed the political dialogue to one controlled by billionaires).

As for education, and the fact that tight budgets are forcing some Colorado school districts to cut down to four days a week, the former Denver Public Schools superintendent said kids should be in school six days a week, not four.

The Medicare X bill rose out of conversations Bennet said he had during the summer in rural Colorado counties, where people make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford health insurance, especially with limited options and providers.

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The Medicare X concept, he said, would allow the 180 million Americans who get insurance from their employers -- and 80 percent like that insurance -- as well as insure that everyone else is covered. You cannot get to universal health care by taking away insurance that people get from their employers, Bennet said.

Medicare X would create a true public option, starting in rural communities, eventually expanded to the entire country and creating a national pool, he said. The senator believes he can get bipartisan support for the measure.

Bennet told reporters later the nation needs universal coverage, yet pays a ridiculous amount of money for a health system system the American people don’t like and isn’t transparent. Regardless of political stripe, everyone hates the way their lives intersect with America’s health care system, he said.

When the public option was "scored" by the Congressional Budget Office, meaning an assessment of its financial benefits and costs, it would have saved money, Bennet said. It fits along with the structure set up by the Affordable Care Act, he added.

On to the census: Bennet said it’s important for people to fill out the census forms, especially since Colorado is in line to gain an eighth congressional seat after the 2020 census.

The citizenship question hasn’t been included the U.S. Census since 1950, and the Trump administration effort to add it has now led to six lawsuits from states and cities.Opponents of asking about citizenship fear it may scare non-citizens out of taking part in the census.

Everyone should have an opportunity to contribute to this country, including through the census, Bennet said, and the law should not do anything that restricts people from being counted or from voting.

“It’s shameful that people in this country pursue those two things for political objectives,” he added.

On climate change, Bennet expressed optimism for the future. “I believe we will solve this issue whether or not the federal government puts its head in the sand,” he said.

Bennet said he believes the United States will eventually join the rest of the world in dealing with the issue. It’s also a health matter, he said, pointing to rollbacks of regulations on air particulate matter, for example, which he said lead to asthma.

Climate change is not a partisan issue, Bennet insisted. “If you have a responsibility to deliver a farm or ranch to the next generation, you’re worried about this issue,” he said.

The nation is not that far removed from a time when climate change was important to both sides, he said, adding that the Republican Party had a “noble record” on climate until 2010, when the Citizens United ruling held that corporations and unions had the same right to free speech, including in political spending, as individuals.

“There’s a culture of inaction on climate and we have to find a way to fix it,” he said, as well as fix what he called the “screwed up” campaign finance system that led to Citizens United.

Another issue addressed at the conference -- opioids -- drew Bennet’s views on drug treatment.

Jails are not the best drug treatment facilities, he said. “We act like a developing country that can’t address these problems,” nor does Congress put in the dollars that would more effectively deal with the issue. “Our national philosophy seems to be to lock people up in jail and hope they get better.”

Bennet’s solution to the current state of partisanship in Congress is to “reconstruct our politics. There’s nothing in our current political vocabulary that is going to solve the problems Coloradans worry about.”

And it hasn’t been that long since Congress was able to solve problems, Bennet said, pointing to the presidency of  George H.W. Bush, whom the nation mourned this week.

Bennet later elaborated on that with reporters. He said he’d like to see something other than an empty partisan conflict at the national level that produces no results for the American people, other than to perpetuate more empty partisan conflict, and which allows politicians to raise money based on that conflict.

“This asks nothing from the American people," he said. "It doesn’t ask people to help solve the problems” or how to get on a path that allows investment in the country again. “What I’m hearing from Coloradans is that they’re working but can’t afford the combination of housing, health care, higher ed or early childhood [education].”

What that will take, he said, is building political coalitions around aspirations that people have for their children and grandchildren, what he calls a constituency for change.

As to his presidential aspirations, Bennet said: “Everyone should get through the holidays and into the New Year, see what’s next.”

The Associated Press, in a story examining potential Democratic presidential candidates' activities in Iowa, a key early caucus statd, reported Nov. 20 that Bennet "has been in contact with some influential Iowa Democrats."

Bennet has not been much in the conversation about Coloradans pondering a White House run. That chatter has mostly been about soon-to-be-former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has become a familiar face in Iowa lately, visiting with two-dozen Democratic activists in Des Moines in October.

Bennet years ago was chief of staff for then-Mayor Hickenlooper.

Commenting on those who are already lining up to begin campaigning ahead of the 2020 election, Bennet said that “part of our problem is a system where the politics never ends and the governance never begins.

"...There’s plenty to occupy everyone” in Congress right now, including him, he added.

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