Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Clinton on Sanders’ Health Care History

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton said, “I don’t know where [Bernie Sanders] was when I was trying to get health care in ’93 and ’94.” Actually, Sanders cosponsored a single-payer health insurance bill in 1993, and Clinton thanked him for his work on the issue that year.

Clinton made the comment at a campaign rally in St. Louis, starting at the 18:23 mark, after she talked about standing up against “powerful forces.”

Clinton, March 12: And I always get a little chuckle when I hear my opponent talking about doing it. Well, I don’t know where he was when I was trying to get health care in ’93 and ’94, standing up against the insurance companies, standing up against the drug companies.

To be sure, Sanders, who was a member of the House in those days, didn’t work with Clinton to pass the administration’s overhaul of the health care system. Instead, he worked, as he does now, for a single-payer, universal system in which everyone is insured by the government. Clinton’s plan relied on expanding the country’s largely employer-based system.

The Clinton campaign says that’s her point — that Sanders didn’t join her fight “against the insurance companies.” But her comment leaves the impression that Sanders wasn’t doing anything to change the health care system back then, and that’s not the case. He was “standing up against the insurance companies” in a different way, by pushing a plan that would largely eliminate them.

After Clinton’s remark, the Sanders campaign took to Twitter to highlight a video in which Sanders stands behind Clinton, who is speaking at a December 1993 rally for the health care overhaul legislation. She says, “I’m grateful that Congressman Sanders would join us today from Vermont,” before thanking another congressman, Rep. Dick Swett of New Hampshire, for “announc[ing] his endorsement” of the Health Security Act.

According to a Boston Globe story on the event held at Dartmouth College, “Vermont’s independent US Rep. Bernard Sanders, who supports a single-payer health care system, appeared with Clinton but did not speak.” The paper quoted Swett talking about his support for the legislation.

The Clinton administration-backed bill, the Health Security Act, was introduced in the House on Nov. 20, 1993, with 103 cosponsors. Sanders was not among them.

The Clinton campaign told us the Dartmouth video supports Clinton’s comment. “The video shows that while Hillary Clinton was out front leading the fight for universal health care and taking the slings and arrows from the health care industry, Bernie Sanders was standing quietly in the back,” campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin told us.

But, again, Sanders was working on health care in 1993, in the same way he is now — by pushing a single-payer plan.

Sanders was an original cosponsor of the American Health Security Act of 1993, along with 52 other representatives, legislation that sought to institute a state-based universal program. The bill ultimately had 90 cosponsors.

In remarks on the House floor on March 4, 1993, a day after the bill was introduced, Sanders sounded very much as he does today in talking about the issue: “Despite that the fact that we are the only major industrialized country on earth without universal, comprehensive health care, we spend far, far more per capita than any other nation,” he said, calling health care “a right” for all.

In a Nov. 3, 1993, debate on the House floor, the same month the Clinton-backed bill later would be introduced, Sanders squared off against Reps. John Boehner and Dennis Hastert over single-payer. Sanders argued in favor of a “Canadian-style” system and said he was “fighting hard for that system in Vermont and for our nation.”

A June 17, 2015, Politico story chronicled Sanders’ efforts in 1993 to encourage Clinton to move to single-payer. A month after President Bill Clinton took office, and appointed the first lady to head a task force on health care, Sanders asked for (and received) a meeting with Hillary Clinton to introduce her to two advocates on single-payer from the Harvard Medical School, Politico reported. Clinton said such a plan wouldn’t be viable politically, according to one of the advocates.

Later that year, Hillary Clinton visited Vermont, and the administration’s background briefing indicated it didn’t see Sanders as an ally in the health care fight.

Politico, June 17, 2015: In June, Clinton did go up to Vermont – to address a Democratic Governors Association meeting hosted by the state’s then-Gov. Howard Dean in the quaint village of Woodstock – and she brought Sanders and Sen. Pat Leahy with her.

The administration’s background briefing on Sanders, tucked in with its plans for the trip, notes, “As a relatively junior member without the support of major party backing, Sanders is not much of a factor legislatively. He is a cosponsor of Congressman McDermott’s single-payer bill and given his reputation for independence and his somewhat combative style may be one of the more difficult Members to get on board the Administration’s proposal.”

When the administration-backed bill was introduced in the House in November 1993, it, too, called for “universal” health care but through an employer and individual mandate, not a government-provided program that Sanders backed then and now.

Clinton wrote a thank-you to Sanders in 1993 on a photo of the two of them sitting together, talking. It said: “To Bernie Sanders with thanks for your commitment to real health care access for all Americans and best wishes.” The Sanders campaign tweeted that image in January.

Just as they do now, Clinton and Sanders then both supported universal health coverage but advocated different paths to achieving it. In May 1994, Sanders again spoke on the House floor about the need to push for a single-payer system: “We could have national health care in this country which guarantees health care to every man, woman and child without out-of-pocket expenses,” he said, calling on the American people “to tell the candidates that if they are not prepared to stand up and fight for a single-payer national health care system which takes on finally the insurance companies and the drug companies, and the AMA, they are not going to get voted in here.”

In August 1994, near the end of the Clinton administration’s fight for a health care overhaul, Sanders joined a group of liberal Democrats — four others in the House and six in the Senate — in opposing a Senate compromise bill backed by President Clinton that was expected to extend health coverage to 95 percent of Americans. A United Press International story from Aug. 4, 1994, says Sanders attended a rally on the east lawn of the Capitol in which Rep. McDermott urged the president to push for legislation with 100 percent universal coverage. Also attending: Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Xavier Becerra of California, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York.

Neither the House nor Senate versions of the administration plan came to a floor vote.

A year later, in a Nov. 13, 1995, House floor speech, Sanders again pushed for a single-payer plan, saying he had disagreed with the president’s plan: “I disagreed with Clinton’s plan, it was too complicated, too cumbersome, but at least he had a vision that said that every man, woman, and child in America should have health insurance,” Sanders said.

Sanders didn’t support the White House’s health care plan, but to say he was missing in 1993 from efforts to overhaul health care ignores his push for a single-payer plan at the time.