Rival Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren joined forces at Tuesday night’s Democratic debate to defend the single-payer health care plan they both support from the charge that it would alienate voters who want to keep their existing health insurance.
Moderator Jake Tapper of CNN began the questioning by asking Sanders to respond to assertions by former Rep. John Delaney that Medicare for All was a “bad policy” that would help Trump get reelected.
“You’re wrong,” Sanders shot back abruptly, sparking a round of applause from the audience. “Right now, we have a dysfunctional health care system. Eighty-seven million uninsured or underinsured, 500,000 Americans going bankrupt because of medical bills, 30,000 dying while the health care industry makes tens of billions of profit.”
Sanders pointed out that Detroit, where the debate took place, is just across the Detroit River from Windsor, Canada, where he went with diabetic Americans to purchase insulin on Sunday.
“Five minutes away from here is a country, it’s called Canada,” he said. “They guarantee health care to every man, woman and child as a human right. They spend half of what we spend and, by the way, when you end up in a hospital in Canada, you come out with no bill at all. Health care is a human right, not a privilege. I believe that, I’ll fight for that.”
Sanders’s Medicare for All plan would eventually phase out all private insurance to place everyone on one health care plan funded by the government.
“I’m right about this,” insisted Delaney. “We can create a universal health care system to give everyone basic health care for free, and I have a proposal to do it. But we don’t have to go around and be the party of health insurance and telling half the country that has private health insurance that their health insurance is illegal.”
Warren weighed in on behalf of Sanders’s plan, saying, “Let’s be clear about this. We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take away health care from anyone. That’s what the Republicans are trying to do.”
Warren then recounted the case of activist Ady Barkan, who is dying from ALS and faces $9,000 in uncovered medical bills each month. She used it as an entry point to attack the private health insurance industry.
“The basic profit model of an insurance company is taking as much money as you can in premiums and pay out as little as possible in health care coverage,” said Warren. “That is not working for Americans across this country. Medicare for All will fix that, and that’s why I’ll fight for it.”
Tapper repeatedly tried to get Warren and Sanders to say whether their plan would require higher taxes — which economists say it would — but the two slipped the question by emphasizing that the savings to middle-class taxpayers on their medical costs would more than offset any tax increases. Sanders accused Tapper of framing the question in a way favorable to Republicans.
“Jake, your question is a Republican talking point,” said Sanders. “By the way, the health care industry will be advertising tonight on this program ... with that talking point.”
Warren put the issue in a political and economic context.
“What's the problem in Washington?” said Warren. “It works great for the wealthy. It works great for those who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers. And it keeps working great for the insurance companies and the drug companies. What it's going to take is real courage to fight back against them. These insurance companies do not have a God-given right to make $23 billion in profits and suck it out of our health care system.”
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, criticized Medicare for All — a policy he had previously co-sponsored in the House — by stating that union members would lose their private insurance under Sanders’s plan.
“They will be better because Medicare for All is comprehensive,” Sanders responded. “It covers all health care needs. For senior citizens, it will finally include dental care, hearing aids and eyeglasses.”
Ryan interrupted, saying, “But you don’t know that. You don’t know that, Bernie.”
“I do know it,” replied Sanders, to loud applause. “I wrote the damn bill.”
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg didn’t directly challenge Sanders or Warren but made the case for a public option, which would retain private insurance but allow Americans to buy into a government-provided health care option.
“That’s the concept of my ‘Medicare for All Who Want It’ proposal,” said Buttigieg. “That way, if people like me are right that the public alternative is going to be not only more comprehensive but more affordable than any of the corporate options around there, we’ll see Americans walk away from the corporate options into that Medicare option, and it will become Medicare for All without us having to kick anybody off their insurance.”
The American health care system is among the most expensive in the world, and also has some of the highest prescription drug costs. At the same time, 28 million people are without health coverage and 79 million have medical debt, while crowdfunding sites to cover medical expenses are proliferating.
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