Democratic Presidential Contenders Debate the Future of Health Care

Democratic Presidential Contenders Debate the Future of Health Care

Presidential hopefuls split on role private insurers should play
A pulpit with two microphones in front of the American flag

Democratic Party presidential hopefuls wrangled over health care policy during this week’s two-night debate, discussing whether to build upon the current system or blow it up and replace it with a government-run program.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio led the charge for scrapping private insurance in favor of “Medicare for All” — a proposal that would let all Americans join the government-sponsored program currently reserved for the elderly and a few select groups.

Speaking on the first night of the debate, Warren said that one of the biggest reasons families go broke is because of medical bills, even among those who have health insurance. Since insurers are in business to make money, she said, consumers must often fight for the coverage they need. Instead, she said she supported Medicare for All.

Sanders defended the idea on the second night of the debate, though he also admitted that while Americans would pay no premiums and have lower healthcare costs under his version of the plan, they would also pay more in taxes.

Former Vice President Joe Biden pushed back on Medicare for All, however, instead voicing support for preserving the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — also known as “Obamacare” — the healthcare reform law enacted in 2010 when he served under President Barack Obama. Taking part in the second night of the debate, Biden said that the fastest way to ensure that all Americans had access to healthcare is “to build on what we did.”

Likewise, former congressman John Delaney said that parts of the current system are working and that the Democrats should be the “party that keeps what’s working, and fixes what’s broken.”

Many candidates endorsed a combination of public and private options. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, for example, said that a government-sponsored plan would create healthy competition in the insurance market, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota urged against forcing Americans to get kicked off their insurance plans if they didn’t want to be.

South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg cautioned that those advocating for “Medicare for All” must explain how the country will pay for it, as well as how the U.S. transitions from the current system to that one. He said he was in favor of expanding access to Medicare while continuing to have a private insurance sector. “I would call it Medicare for all who want it,” he said.

One thing the candidates did seem to agree on was that healthcare is a basic right for everyone. Sen. Kamala Harris of California pointed out how the average American struggles under the current insurance system with deductibles they can’t afford to pay.

Several candidates also described their personal experiences with healthcare. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado recounted his recent bout with prostate cancer; Biden talked about the role of the healthcare system when his son Beau was diagnosed with brain cancer; and Buttigieg discussed his experience seeing Medicare work when his late father was ill.

The two-day event at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami marked the first debate in the race for the Democratic Party nomination. On Wednesday, 10 candidates took part, including former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), former housing secretary Julián Castro, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio), along with de Blasio, Delaney, Klobuchar and Warren.

They were followed on Thursday night by former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.), author Marianne Williamson and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, as well as Bennet, Biden, Buttigieg, Gillibrand, Harris and Sanders.

Tamara E. Holmes

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, DC-based writer who covers personal finance, entrepreneurship and careers.