In the past month, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has thrown her support behind two liberal health care bills. Shortly thereafter, her re-election campaign began airing a statewide ad touting her embrace of the policies promoted by the two bills she co-sponsored.
"I believe in universal health care, in a public health option to compete with private insurance companies and expanding Medicare to everyone over 55," Feinstein says in the ad, part of an attempt to push back against her leading 2018 opponent, state Sen. Kevin de León, who has made his support of a single-payer health care program a central plank of his campaign.
Feinstein aides said the timing of the ad and the support for the two bills is unrelated, pointing out the legislation is an extension of the types of health care policies she's been advocating for more than a decade.
De León's campaign issued a statement after the ad was released this month accusing Feinstein of trying to mislead voters. "Now that she has her first serious challenge from a true progressive, Dianne Feinstein is doing everything in her power to make voters think she and Kevin De León have the same position on health care. They don’t."
As the pressure from de León and liberal activists back home has intensified, Feinstein has taken a more forceful stand on immigration, voting not to fund the government this winter because the spending legislation did not include language to protect undocumented immigrants brought to the United States, known as Dreamers. She's also shifted to more liberal positions on recreational marijuana and reversed her longstanding support for the death penalty.
On health care, the Democratic senator argued for a so-called "public option" insurance plan, run by the government, when the Affordable Care Act was drafted in 2009. It was left out of the final health care law, also known as Obamacare, over concerns it went too far for moderate Democrats and some Republicans to support.
In recent years, Feinstein has gotten behind the idea of using Medicare as a vehicle to create such a public health care option. Last fall, she was one of the first senators to co-sponsor legislation to create a Medicare-based public option in the Obamacare individual insurance markets. But it wasn't until late last month that she threw her support behind a bill to expand access to Medicare to people over 55, as she mentions in the ad.
For the vast majority of people, the Medicare eligibility age is currently 65. The Senate bill would allow people between the ages of 55 and 64 to buy into the program and thus gain access to Medicare hospital, medical, and prescription-drug benefits. California has 5.6 million people on Medicare, the largest number of beneficiaries of any state.
The senator signed on to co-sponsor the Medicare at 55 Act on April 26. The bill, introduced in August 2017, has 18 other Democratic co-sponsors, all of whom joined between August and November of last year. Feinstein is the only one to sign on this year.
Feinstein's Senate office said she’s supported the concept of lowering the Medicare eligibility age via a buy-in for some time. And she'd been looking at different legislative options to do so, before deciding to cosponsor this particular bill in late April.
Four days later, the senator also announced her support for the Choose Medicare Act, which would allow employers to offer a Medicare-based public insurance option to their employees. "This would increase competition and choice in the employer market and the public plan’s negotiating power would help tamp down health care costs for all employers," Feinstein said in an April 30 statement. She also added her name to two otherpieces of legislation in March to protect and strengthen Obamacare, which were drafted by leading liberal voices Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin. None of these Democrat-backed bills is likely to advance in the current, Republican-controlled Senate.
Feinstein taped the health care ad the first week of April, according to her campaign. But it didn't go up on the air until early May. It's one of a handful of television ads the senator has aired ahead of California's June 5 primary.
Feinstein remains firmly in the lead in polling of the Senate race, with de León in second place but trailing by double digits. More than two dozen other candidates are also running for the seat. The top two finishers in June will advance to the general election.
Health care is one of a handful of issues de León and his supporters have focused on in their attempt to oust Feinstein, who's been in the Senate since 1992. Unlike de León, Feinstein does not support the creation of a single-payer or "Medicare for all" health care system that is entirely funded through the government. De León helped lead the push for such a system in the California Senate in 2017, but it stalled in the state Assembly over concerns about how to pay for it. Still, it remains popular among the Democratic base. The state party declined to endorse Feinstein for re-election in February, in part due to disagreements on health care policy.
Feinstein has denied that she's changed her positions in recent months to fit the more partisan political climate. And she's not shying away from her reputation as a pragmatic dealmaker. "The way the Senate functions, I believe I can be far more productive for the people of this state than Kevin de León, that's just a fact," she told The Sacramento Bee's editorial board earlier this spring. "If the people agree, and that's what they want, then I'll be elected. If they don't, I won't."