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Democratic Debates and Medicare Reform: Who Supports Which Plan?

Tensions were high in the first two Democratic debates of the 2020 presidential race, which aired Wednesday and Thursday night. While Medicare and healthcare reform have long been talking points for progressive Democrats, these debates clarified who supports which plan, why, and how they intend to make their vision a reality. 

Night One

During the first night of debates, the candidates were asked to raise their hand if they supported abolishing private insurance and creating a single-payer system like Medicare for All. The only hands raised were those of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MD) and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MD)

Warren has been a long-time supporter of Medicare reform, but until the debate, she had committed to the idea of there being multiple ways to go about making Medicare for All happen. However, she opened the single-payer system with open arms during Wednesday’s debate. 

“Look at the business model of an insurance company, “ she said. “It’s to bring in as many dollars as they can in premiums and to pay out as few dollars as possible for your health care… Medicare for All solves that problem. I understand there are a lot of politicians who say it’s [not] possible, we can’t do it… They are really telling you they won’t fight for it. Health care is a basic human right and I will fight for basic human rights.”

Former Representative Beto O’Rourke

O’Rourke endorsed Medicare for All as recently as 2017, but he recently reversed his position and now backs Medicare for America. This bill would expand Medicare coverage and cover the uninsured, people covered by Obamacare marketplace plans, Medicaid beneficiaries, newborns, and those who already have Medicare coverage.

“I think the choice is fundamental to our ability to get everybody cared for,” he said. 

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ)

Booker did not have much opportunity to speak on Medicare reform. He co-sponsored Senator Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All bill, but he did not raise his hand when asked if he would abolish private insurance, an unambiguous cornerstone of the Medicare for All bill. 

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)

Klobuchar used her time to fight for Medicare choice, saying she was “concerned about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

The first interjection of the night came from Mayor de Blasio during O’Rourke’s statements on Medicare reform. 

“Private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans when you talk about the co-pays, the deductibles, the out-of-pocket expenses,” de Blasio argued. “It’s not working. How can you defend a system that’s not working?”

O’Rourke responded, “That’s right. So for those for whom it’s not working, they can choose Medicare.”

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Night Two

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg promoted choice, saying he would “call it Medicare for all who want it.”

“You take something like Medicare,” he said, “a flavor of that, you make it available on the exchanges, people can buy in. And then if people like us are right, that will be not only a more inclusive plan, but a more efficient plan than any of the corporate answers out there… Even in countries that have outright socialized medicine, like England, there’s still a private sector. That’s fine.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden

The former Vice President played a major role in creating and passing the Affordable Care Act under the leadership of President Barack Obama, so it came as no surprise that he was eager to build upon the system already in place while also providing a Medicare buy-in option.

“Make sure that everyone does have an option,” he said. “Everyone with private insurance and employer insurance and no insurance. They can buy into a Medicare-like plan. We can do it quickly.”

Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA)

When the moderators asked all of the candidates if they would abolish private insurance and institute a single-payer system like Medicare for All, Senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris raised their hands. It was expected that Sanders would raise his hand as he wrote the Medicare for All bill and single-handedly brought it into the national conversation during his 2016 presidential campaign. 

However, some were surprised to see Harris raise her hand as well. What surprised even more, though, is that she reversed her position immediately after the debate, stating that she misheard the question and would not abolish private insurance.

Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT)

Sanders, the long-time Medicare for All advocate and Medicare for All bill author, fielded the first question of the night on the topic of Medicare for All raising taxes for the middle class. 

People who have healthcare under Medicare for All will have no premiums, no deductibles, no copayments, and no out-of-pocket expenses,” he said. “Yes, they will pay more in taxes but less in healthcare for what they get.”

At another point in the debate, Sanders said in between eruptions of applause, “Healthcare in my view is a human right and we have got to pass a Medicare for All single-payer system. Under that system…[the] vast majority of the people in this country will be paying significantly less for healthcare than they are right now.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)

Gillibrand, a co-sponsor of Sanders’s bill, took a pragmatic approach, arguing that if given the choice between Medicare and private insurance, people will choose Medicare, and the country will then gradually move to a single-payer system. 

“The quickest way you get there is you create competition with the insurers,” she said. “God bless the insurers, if they want to compete, they can certainly try, but they’ve never put people over their profits, and I doubt they ever will. What will happen is people choose Medicare and we will get to Medicare for All.” 

The next Democratic debates

As the pool of Democratic presidential hopefuls is whittled down, each will have to take a firm position on Medicare and healthcare reform. The next Democratic debates will be held in Michigan on July 30 and 31. 

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