Fact Checker

Fact Checker: Was Bernie Sanders the first to urge 'Medicare for all?'

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders on April 10 introduces the #x201c;Medicare for All Act#x201d; on C
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders on April 10 introduces the “Medicare for All Act” on Capitol Hill. (Olivier Douliery/Tribune News Service)


“He was the first candidate to stand up and demand affordable health care for everyone through Medicare for all.”

“In Trump’s economy, nearly half of new wealth has gone to the ultrarich while many families continue to struggle.”

Source of claims

A mailer to Iowans received Sept. 12 titled “Bernie has always stood up for us” from Bernie 2020, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.


To substantiate the first claim, the Sanders campaign points us to a September 2019 New York Times profile documenting the origins of his “Medicare for all” position.

While the article doesn’t explicitly say Sanders was the first candidate to endorse “Medicare for all,” the “extensive review of speeches, correspondences and newspaper clippings” traced his support for the cause back for decades.

One early example came during a Vermont senatorial campaign in 1972 when, as a member of the Liberty Union Party, Sanders said, “There is absolutely no rational reason, in the United States of America today, we could not have full and total free medical care for all,” the Times reported, citing The Bennington Banner.

A second moment came following a 1987 expedition to Ottawa, Canada, where Sanders, then the Burlington, Vt. mayor, went to “observe firsthand the government-backed, universal model that he strongly suspected was better,” according to the Times. The trip helped crystallize his support for a single-payer system and the “Medicare for all” platform that gained attention during the 2016 presidential race, the newspaper reported.

To further examine this claim, let’s sort through where other candidates stand on the controversial position of having government-run health care.

Analysis of candidate positions by several news organizations including Vox, the New York Times, Politico, Reuters, and the Washington Post identify Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as the only ones among the top-polling candidates now who fully support “Medicare for all,” although Warren has taken heat for being vague.


At the June televised Democratic debate, when asked about her position on health care, rather than present her own plan, Warren said, “I’m with Bernie on Medicare for all.” Warren also co-sponsored Sanders’ Medicare for All Act of 2019 in April.

While several candidates say they support “Medicare for all,” they actually have also either supported or acknowledged a need for a hybrid or incremental approach to a single-payer system, according to the publications. A key point of distinction for Sanders and Warren is their support to abolish private health insurance and fully put health care in the public, taxpayer-funded realm.

This part of the claim gets an A.

For the next claim about the ultrarich capturing half of new wealth, the Sanders campaign cites a paper published March 2 by Emmanuel Saez called “Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States.”

Saez is a professor of economics and director of the Center for Equitable Growth at University of California, Berkeley. Sanders consulted Saez and Gabriel Zucman, a fellow economist at Berkeley, on his plan to expand taxes for the richest Americans, according to news reports.

The Sanders campaign highlights a line from “Striking it Richer” stating, “Top 1 percent families captured 49 percent of total real income growth per family from 2009-2017.”

The full quote from the paper continues, “ ... but the recovery from the Great Recession now looks less lopsided than in previous years.”

This is because the bottom 99 percent of families saw incomes grow 2.9 percent from 2016 to 2017, which was the best growth rate since 1999, while top 1 percent of incomes grew 10.8 percent, according to the paper.

“Nevertheless, income inequality remains extremely high,” Saez wrote. “As top incomes have grown faster than middle and bottom incomes, top income shares have continued to increase in 2017 relative to 2016.”


The 2017 figures are estimates based on “quasi-complete distributional tax return statistics posted by (the Internal Revenue Service) in February 2019,” according to the paper.

For some, this part of the flyer could be misleading. While the flyer doesn’t state the ultrarich are capturing more new wealth under President Donald Trump than under previous administrations, people could make that assumption in context of the advertisement. For example, in another place, the flyer states Trump “gave all of his billionaire friends a nice big tax cut.”

In fact, the ultrarich have captured the same portion or less of new income under Trump than under the previous two administrations.

According to Saez’ paper, the share was 45 percent during the Clinton administration (1993-2000), 57 percent during the 2001 recession (2000-2002), 65 percent during the Bush expansion (2002-2007), 49 percent during the Great Recession (2007-2009), and 49 percent during the Recovery (2009-2017). The share for the full period — from 1993 to 2017 — was 51 percent.

We score this part of the claim a B.


The campaign is accurate in touting Sanders as the forerunner among the 2020 Democratic field on “Medicare for all.” On the claim about the ultrarich getting half of new wealth during the Trump administration, which began in 2017, the numbers are correct based on data available so far, which are from 2017. However, this flyer could be misleading because the share of new income captured by the top 1 percent is roughly the same or less under Trump than under Barack Obama or George W. Bush, and is on par with the 25 year average.

Overall, we score this flyer an A.


The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.

Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by B.A. Morelli of The Gazette.

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