NEWS: Sanders Commencement Address for University of New England’s 2024 Graduating Class

WASHINGTON, May 20 – Sen. Bernie Sanders, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), on Saturday, May 18, gave the commencement speech at University of New England’s (UNE) graduation ceremony. UNE is the number one provider of health care professionals for the state of Maine and an important health workforce educator for Vermont, New England, and the country. In his address, Sanders discussed the state of the American health care system and celebrated the work and futures of the 1,500 students graduating that day in fields of medicine, dental care, pharmacy, allied health professions, marine and environmental sciences, humanities, the social sciences, education, and business.

The senator was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Law during the ceremony.

Sanders’ live remarks are transcribed below and can be watched HERE:


And I know that this is a momentous day for you and for your parents. So, I’m not going to bore you by going on for too too long. Modestly long.

And let me thank Dr. Herbert for inviting me to be with you and congratulate the students and faculty on this important day.

For a number of years, I have had the privilege of working with Dr. Herbert and UNE on ideas, as he mentioned, as to how we can address the very serious workforce crisis we have in health care throughout our country. And working together we have made some progress but obviously a lot more needs to be done. But I want to thank Dr. Herbert for all of his help.

And let me tell you why I am here at UNE today. And why my son and I traveled 5 hours from Burlington to get here in the middle of the night.

And that is, I am extremely impressed by this university. And I happen to believe that you are one of the great universities in the United States of America.

Why do I say that? And why do I believe it?

Why I say that is that you are doing what far too few universities are doing. This university is taking a look at the crises facing our country and is saying, “Alright, how do we get our young people out into the world to address those crises?” And I got to tell you not every university in America is doing that. So, I thank you all very much.

You know, a few minutes ago, we heard from Megan who sang a beautiful rendition of America the Beautiful. And in so many ways, and as somebody who has been all over this country and every state in the Union, we are an incredibly beautiful country. In so many ways. But we would be dishonest with ourselves, if we did not acknowledge that in this particular moment in American history, we have many, many crises. And on your shoulders, and I don’t envy you, you are entering the workforce at a very difficult time in American history. But we are depending on you with full confidence, that you’re going to have the strength, the energy, the vision, the morality, to turn this country around and make it the beautiful nation that we know that it can become.

And a key part of what we have to do as a nation is to train the next generation of doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacist, and others to provide the highest quality care that the people in Maine, Vermont, New England, and the country desperately need – and that is exactly what you are doing.

Now, if you want to fall asleep soon that’s okay. But I want you to remember just two points that I’m gonna make. And that is number one: For those of you who are entering the health care workforce. The work you are doing is of extraordinary importance and I cannot think of work that is more important. You are saving people’s lives. You’re easing suffering. You’re extending longevity. You’re delivering babies. You’re taking care of the people who are at the end of their lives. There is nothing more important than that. And I know based on the education you have received here and the values you’ve received from your parents, you’re going to do a great job doing that. That’s the main point that I want to make to you.

Second point. I wish that I could tell you that the system that you are entering is a system designed to allow you to do the important work that you are trained to do. I wish I could tell you that out there you are going to be able to move aggressively to take care of the people of our region and our country in the best way possible. But if I told you that I would be lying to you, because that is far, far from the case.

So let me begin by saying what you all know. Think about it for a second and that is that every person in our country, every person in the world, wants to live long, happy, and productive lives. That’s what we want to do. That should be the goal of our nation. How do we create a society in which we have good life expectancy, where people are happy, where people are healthy?

All of us want to make sure that we have the strength and the health to have happy and productive family lives and work lives. All of us want to avoid chronic and debilitating illnesses. All of us want to have good sight and good hearing and good teeth. All of us want to live long enough to welcome our grandchildren and great grandchildren into this world. And all of that, whether or not we succeed in that direction, depends upon the quality of health care that we provide as a nation. And in fact when you talk about health care, it is not some abstract idea. This is, to a significant degree, is what a nation stands for.

Are we a nation that says everybody is entitled to health care whether you’re rich or poor, you’re in rural America, you’re in urban America. Is it our goal, to say that we want Americans to live as long as is possible?

So I think the fundamental question that every person in this arena has to answer is a very simple one. And that is will we as a nation, live up to the lofty words in our Declaration of Independence that quote, “Men” and we would say women “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That’s our Declaration of Independence.

Is that what we are striving for? Or will our quality of life, our health, and our longevity continue to be determined by how much money we have, and by the greed of very powerful special interests that dominate the health care system in America today? That’s the question.

As Dr. Herbert mentioned, I am proudly the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. And in that position, let me be very blunt, and tell you what is not often enough acknowledged. And that is that the health care system in the United States of America is broken. It is dysfunctional and it is cruel.

It is a system, which as many of you know, spends almost twice as much per capita on health care as do the people of any other country. We are spending an astronomical sum, over $13,000 for every man, woman, and child. $52,000 for a family of four. And yet, despite those huge expenditures, we have 85 million Americans who are uninsured, no insurance at all, or underinsured – high deductibles and copayments. We live in a society where one out of four Americans cannot afford the prescription drugs their doctors prescribe. And we live in a nation, unbelievably, where some 60,000 Americans die each year because they haven’t been able to get to a doctor on time. Because they don’t have insurance or inadequate insurance.

Despite spending double what other countries are spending. Our life expectancy, how long we live, is lower by far than almost every other major country on Earth and it is actually in decline. And what is extremely important to know and virtually never talked about, is not only is our life expectancy below other countries, the gap between the rich and working families and the poor is enormous.

The estimate is that if you are rich, you will live 10 years longer in America than if you are poor. Poverty is a death sentence. The current American health care system is a system in which some half a million Americans go bankrupt because of medically related debt. Think about that. Think about somebody ending up in the hospital because they have cancer or heart disease. They come out with a few $100,000 in debt they can’t afford to pay. They have to struggle not only to get well, from a serious illness, they got to worry about whether their family is going bankrupt. That is in the richest country in the history of the world.

The broken system that we have creates a situation in which large parts of our country the areas are medically underserved. We don’t have enough doctors, nurses, etc. Where rural hospitals are being shut down. And we are people, even if you have decent insurance, have to travel hours in order to find a doctor.

It is a system in which, in the midst of a major mental health crisis and COVID exacerbated what was already a serious problem, when over 100,000 Americans died last year from drug overdoses, suicide, alcoholism, depression and anxiety are rising, Americans are unable to afford or find the mental health care or the substance abuse treatment that they need.

It is a system where despite our huge expenditures, and this is really quite remarkable as well. You would think that when you spend double what any other country is spending, you would have enough doctors, you would have enough nurses, you would have enough dentists, you have enough mental health specialists, you would have enough pharmacists. And yet we are facing, and I appreciate what UNE is doing to help address this crisis, we have a major major workforce shortage in health care.

It is an irrational, irrational system in which young people who want to go into health care, including I suspect some of you here right now, are going to leave school deeply in debt. That true?

So, I want you to think about this for a moment. The country desperately needs, desperately needs, doctors, nurses, dentists, mental health counselors, etc. And yet what we are saying to young people, if you go into that profession and you’re from a working class to a middle-class background, the immediate reward you gonna get is you’re going to leave school three or $400,000 in debt.

Between you and me, that is insane.

Which is by the way, why we are trying hard to forgive all student debt in America.

It is a system in which Black, Latino, and Native American doctors and nurses are grossly underrepresented as well medical professionals.

It is a system so complex that millions of Americans simply cannot get the care they need even when it is available, even when they are entitled to coverage.

So all over this country, people are up to here. My wife has a PhD, and thank you for giving me this honorary degree – we’ll have two doctors in the family now. But she really earned hers. I talk to her and everybody else in this country about the forms you have to fill out in order to get the coverage that you thought you were entitled to.

And this bureaucracy and this paperwork is not only enormously frustrating, the complexity of the system for patients, it is equally frustrating for the doctors and nurses and those who take care of us. You are being trained as health care professionals to provide the best care possible to your patients. Not to spend an ungodly amount of time filling out forms to please the insurance companies.

Further, and this again is an issue that needs discussion and thought. We have a health care system in which the quality of the care you receive is dependent, dependent upon the generosity of your employer, or whether perhaps you have a decent union. So, you work for a large company, profitable company, you get good health insurance. You work for McDonald’s, you really don’t get any health insurance at all because you can’t afford the minimal insurance they provide.

Does that mean to say that the worker at McDonald’s or Walmart is less in need of health care than somebody who works in a large corporation and has good health insurance? The answer obviously, is not.

I have had the opportunity, the honor, to travel all over this country. And in that capacity. I have held hundreds of town meetings, often dealing with health care. One of the things that I also learned when you talk about an employer-based health care system, you get your health care from your job. Is there are millions of Americans today who are on their jobs, not because they enjoy their jobs. They’re on the jobs because they have good health care. How many people I’ve talked who say, “Look, I have a kid who’s really sick and I got great health insurance. I really don’t like the job, but I’m going to stay on the job.” That is dispiriting to those people. So, the bottom line of this whole thing is you in your own hearts have got to make a decision. Is health care a human right for all people? Or is it a privilege? That is the fundamental issue of our time.

And further, our current health care system fails to fully recognize that health care is more than just walking into a doctor’s office or entering a hospital. It is about every aspect of our lives.

Yes, dental care is health care.

Yes, the treatment of mental illness is health care.

Yes, providing services to millions of elderly and disabled Americans in their home is health care.

And here’s the point that some may disagree with me on but I think it has to be made. The health care system today is working phenomenally well. It’s an extraordinary system.

For the people who own the system.

In my view, the function of the American health care system is not to provide quality care to all people. It is to make maximum profits for the insurance companies, the drug companies, and the medical equipment suppliers.

And they are in fact succeeding.

So, the health care system today is doing what it is supposed to do. Huge profits for drug companies. Huge profits for the insurance companies. I had a guy in front of my committee, head of a drug company – $50 million a year in salary. That’s what these guys make. They’re doing really well. The system is in fact working. But it is not working for ordinary Americans.

What do we do? And one other issue on that. All over the world, what systems understand whose goal is to keep people healthy, is you invest in primary health care. Now why do you do that? Because if you keep people healthy, they live longer and happier lives. And if you don’t, they’re going to end up in emergency rooms and in the hospital, at great expense to the system. But because our system is based on tertiary health care – they do a great job when you’re really ill and you go to the hospital. We do not do a great job in keeping people healthy through preventative care or primary care. We are spending less than half as much as other systems around the world on primary health care.

So those are some of the problems. So what do we do? And the answer is twofold.

Number one, as I said earlier, your job, and we desperately need you, is to go out into the world and provide the best quality care that you can. That’s your job. That’s your mission. And I know you’re going to do that.

But second of all, what we have got to do is move the current dysfunctional system away from a for profit system, designed to make the owners of the system wealthier. To a system which provides quality health care to all people. Now there are various ways to do it and every country in the world except us, by the way, provides universal health care to all their people. They’re all a little bit different.

But bottom line is if you go to a country like Canada, not so far away from us. And you end up in the hospital, for a month after major surgery or whatever, the bill you get when you leave is zero. You get any doctor you want and your bill is zero. And yet they end up spending half as much as we do per capita.

So I believe that Medicare in America, traditional Medicare is the foundation upon which we can build a strong national health care system. What we have got to do is expand Medicare to cover all people in this country. Expand Medicare to cover dental care, to cover vision care, to cover hearing care, to cover comprehensive care. 

We can create – I know it sounds radical, I know it sounds utopian, but it exists in other countries around the world. We can create a system in which people can go to any doctor they want, any hospital they want, and not have to take out their wallet. That in fact exists in many countries around the world. And we can pay for that. By eliminating the many hundreds of billions of dollars we spend every single year on administration, unnecessary administration, and billing.

During COVID we had hospitals almost shutting down. No doctors the nurses. Yet the bill collectors were there every single day. We are spending huge amounts of money billing people, hounding people to pay their bills. We should be spending health care dollars on providing health care to people, not making insurance companies even wealthier.

So that’s the challenge that we face. Every other country on Earth guarantees health care to all people as a human right. We don’t. And yet we spend twice as much as other countries.

We can do better.

We must do better.

And with your help, I am confident we will do better.

Thank you all very much.