Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at the University of New England’s commencement at Cross Insurance Arena on Saturday. He warned graduates in the medical field that they have their work cut out for them,. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The U.S. health care system is broken, costs more than in other countries, and has resulted in underserved and unhealthy citizens, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told a crowd at the University of New England’s commencement Saturday.

More than 1,500 undergraduate and graduate students graduated Saturday from the university, which is Maine’s top provider of health care professionals and home to the state’s only medical and dental colleges.

“I wish I could tell you that the system you are entering is a system designed to allow you to do the important work you are trained to do,” Sanders said to graduates, their friends and families gathered at the Cross Insurance Arena. “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 country in the best way possible – but if I told you that, I would be lying to you.”

Sanders, who ran for president in 2016 and 2020, delivered a commencement speech in which he spoke about the need to reform the U.S. health care system and called for change.

The 20-minute speech largely focused on the problems facing the system, though he also highlighted the graduates’ future work as an important bright spot.

“Your job – and we desperately need you – is to go out into the world and provide the best quality care you can,” Sanders said. “That’s your job, your mission, and I know you can do it.”

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Sanders came as the keynote speaker after he invited the university’s president, James Herbert, to testify before a Senate subcommittee last year about the health care labor shortage.

Sanders said the 2024 University of New England graduates will play a key role in improving health care in the United States. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The senator lamented on Saturday the high cost of health care in the U.S. – which he said costs almost twice as much per capita as in other countries – while noting that, at the same time, millions of Americans have no insurance or are underinsured and thus cannot access care.

As a result, the U.S. has a lower life expectancy than in other countries and a larger gap in life expectancy between the rich and poor, Sanders said. And millions of people go bankrupt because of medical debt. Others may have good insurance but are shut out from care because they live in rural and underserved parts of the country amid a shortage of doctors and other providers.

Yet despite the workforce problems, students often must take on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to get trained in their professions. “Between you and me, that is insane,” Sanders said to a round of applause.

Another problem Sanders sees is the employer-based insurance system, which forces people to stay at jobs they might not otherwise and which favors people who work for wealthy corporations over those in the service industry and lower-paying jobs.

“Is the worker at McDonald’s or Walmart less in need of health insurance than someone who works at a large company?” Sanders asked. “The answer is: of course not.”

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Sanders, who is known for his advocacy of a national health-insurance-for-all plan, said there are some solutions to the current problems. First, he said there need to be more investments in primary and preventive care.

Nursing student Anne Carrigg signals to the crowd at the University of New England’s commencement at Cross Insurance Arena. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

He also said the Medicare program can serve as a foundation for expanded insurance coverage for all Americans and all kinds of health care services, including dental and mental health care.

“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 wallets,” Sanders said. “That, in fact, exists in many countries around the world.”

Along with Sanders, local developer, entrepreneur and philanthropist Arthur P. Girard was recognized with an honorary degree. Girard and his family have made significant contributions to the university, including the gift of Ram Island in Saco Bay in 2014, which is used for field research by the university’s marine sciences programs.

Herbert, the university’s president, called on graduates to be innovators and find creative solutions to problems.

“Each of you has made your own special mark on our campuses and programs, and they won’t be quite the same without you,” he said. “But we know you’re ready to head into the world and apply your knowledge and skills to important endeavors.”


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