By Yasmeen Abutaleb and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats in control of the U.S. House of Representatives will begin holding hearings on expanding Medicare this spring and will aim to pass a bill by the end of next year, a senior Democratic lawmaker said on Tuesday.

John Yarmuth, chairman of the House Budget Committee, said in an interview with Reuters that the most feasible option might be passing legislation that offers Medicare, which currently starts at 65 years of age, to all those above 50 or 55.

“I would say a majority (of Democrats) wants to do something, some kind of Medicare expansion,” Yarmuth said. “I’ve had a number of major corporate CEOs say to me we need to go to Medicare for All.”

Yarmuth, who campaigned in midterm elections in 2018 on expanding Medicare, said he is waiting on an assessment from the Congressional Budget Office that will help lawmakers understand what variables they need to consider in expanding Medicare to more or all of the U.S. population.

Medicare is the government health insurance program for the elderly and disabled, and it currently covers about 60 million Americans.

The idea of “Medicare for All,” which for many references a single-payer system that would largely replace private insurance, has gained traction among Democrats and is poised to play a central role in the 2020 presidential election.

A single-payer system is variously understood as one in which the government pays for healthcare for more people, or one where the government owns health services providers and manages all aspects of care, such as in the United Kingdom.

A Reuters/IPSOS poll in August found that 70 percent of Americans support some sort of single-payer system.

A major Medicare expansion is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, however.

DEFINING MEDICARE FOR ALL

Several Democrats have introduced bills in the House and the Senate that would expand Medicare, but the definition of Medicare for All remains unclear.

“I personally would be very concerned about a massive immediate transition from our current system to everybody in Medicare,” Yarmuth said. “That would be so disruptive.”

U.S. Democratic Senator Kamala Harris, a top 2020 Democratic presidential contender, said on Monday she supported the idea of Medicare for All and ending private insurance.

Many Democratic presidential candidates so far are campaigning on a version of Medicare for All.

Yarmuth said the aim of the hearings is to more clearly define the proposal ahead of the 2020 election and develop a framework for legislation.

He said Democrats hope to avoid the mistake Republicans made in trying to repeal and replace Obamacare, which they failed to do after campaigning on it for eight years because they could not agree on how to overturn the law.

Obamacare, formally known as the Affordable Care Act, was former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement that expanded health insurance to some 20 million Americans.

The American Hospital Association opposes Medicare for All, and America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the health insurance industry’s biggest trade group, has said a single payer system cannot work.

Private health insurers, including United Health, Anthem and Aetna, now owned by CVS Health Corp, could lose business under such a system.

Members of the Trump administration have given speeches criticizing a Medicare for All proposal, including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

“The main thrust of Medicare for All is giving you a new government plan and taking away your other choices,” Azar said in a speech in September.

(Reporting By Yasmeen Abutaleb and Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Jilian Mincer in New York; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

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