Bernie Isn’t Going Anywhere

Relax: getting heart stents is extremely common, and Bernie Sanders will be back in action soon. But millions of Americans who lack the senator’s generous health insurance aren’t so lucky.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders warms up before his baseball game against the Leaders Believers Achievers Foundation at the Field of Dreams Baseball field on August 19, 2019 in Dyersville, Iowa. (Joshua Lott / Getty Images)

The news this morning that Bernie Sanders is putting his campaign on hold after being treated for a blocked artery has elicited understandable alarm from his supporters. It’s been compounded by news that his campaign has canceled a major two-week $1.3 million ad buy in Iowa, which, on the face of it, sounds even more alarming.

But there is little reason to worry. According to the Sanders campaign, after experiencing “chest discomfort,” the senator had a medical evaluation, the blockage was discovered, and two stents — tiny tubes placed in an artery to keep it open and reduce the risk of more serious issues — were inserted. According to Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s senior adviser, Sanders is “conversing and in good spirits,” and will be resting up for a few days, during which time he won’t be doing scheduled campaign events and appearances. This most likely explains the ad-buy cancellation, too: Sanders was meant to be in Iowa this weekend, and there’s little point in spending so much money on an ad campaign if it won’t line up with physical appearances.

While far from ideal for the campaign, this is largely how things should work for everyone in a functional health-care system: you don’t feel good, you go to the doctor or hospital, they test you, they fix you up, and they send you on your merry way. You take a well-deserved break from your job and get back to it when you’re feeling better.

Unfortunately, Sanders’s experience is not the norm for most Americans. For someone without health insurance, this procedure can cost between $11,000 and $41,000. For someone with insurance, they might not pay this entire bankrupting sum, but they’ll still likely pay an unmanageable fraction of it. Americans pay up to six times more for stents than patients in European countries, while the Indian government has capped their cost at an amount equivalent to between US$108 and US$444. And this is made worse by the fact that stents are overprescribed by US doctors, when cheaper and sometimes less invasive procedures would do the trick just as well.

Sanders is fortunate to have the generous health-care coverage of a US senator. Had he lacked it, he may well have ended up among the roughly quarter of Americans who have to refuse medical care because they can’t afford it, or the 44 percent of Americans who can’t even see a doctor because of the cost involved. He may well have decided to simply ignore the discomfort and tough it out; he may well have ended up facing the prospect of something far more serious some time later. It’s a reminder not just of the inequities built into the heavily privatized US system, but the benefits of Medicare for All, Sanders’s flagship policy that would slash health-care costs for the US public while making treatment free at the point of service.

There is another element to this story. As the New York Times helpfully outlined at length, the incident will probably be seized upon by his opponents, who have tried to make Sanders’s age an issue in the campaign.

They can try, but having stents inserted is a pretty common procedure. Bill Clinton had two inserted back in 2010, when he was sixty-three years old, fifteen years younger than Sanders is now. Clinton’s procedure took place after having a much more serious quadruple coronary bypass surgery in 2004, the product of a family history of heart disease and less than healthy habits. As Newsweek put it in reporting on Clinton’s stents nine years ago: “stents sound scary, but the real threat is not discovering the blockage in time to get the heart-clearing salvation they provide.”

One of Sanders’s defining (and sometimes baffling) characteristics is his robust health. In 2016, the attending physician of the US Congress released a summary medical analysis of Sanders, describing him in “overall very good health” with no history of cardiovascular disease, plus normal blood pressure and vital signs. Dr. Ben Littenberg, a professor and primary care physician at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, called him a “remarkably healthy seventy-four-year-old man” without “anything especially threatening to his longevity.” He still plays basketball, is no slouch at softball, swore off drugs and alcohol a long time ago, and by all accounts is more energetic and tireless than his much younger aides (his boxing game could use a little work, though).

In other words, just as with the right-wing attempts to drum up baseless fears about Hillary Clinton’s health in 2016 — an effort decried by the mainstream media at the time — to use this incident to suggest Sanders isn’t physically fit enough to hold office is a below-the-belt attack.

Presidential campaigns are famously grueling, punishing affairs, and as even the Times notes, Sanders has been burning the candle at both ends, doing multiple events in different cities every day. Whether or not that contributed to this incident is a question for his doctors and staff to figure out, but Sanders isn’t going anywhere. And neither is the movement he’s leading to make sure everyone can get the same decent, worry-free health care he just received.