Sahil Kapur reported that Kamala Harris says she supports “Medicare for All,” and she has cosponsored legislation with Bernie Sanders. But unlike her Democratic presidential rival, she says the plan wouldn’t end private insurance.
That’s misleading. The measure would outlaw all private insurance for medically necessary services but allow a sliver to remain for supplemental coverage. It would force the roughly 150 million Americans who are insured through their employer to switch to a government-run program.
Harris is trying to find a narrow path between two competing constituencies in the Democratic Party. On one side are progressives who passionately support so-called single payer insurance and are pushing the party to the left. On the other is the party establishment, which believes that calling for an end to private insurance for millions would be political suicide against President Donald Trump in 2020.
Her attempts to please both camps could become a vulnerability for a campaign that is surging after a strong performance in last week’s debates, though allies say her rhetoric about a role for private insurance would be more politically viable in a general election.
The issue has tripped up the California senator almost from the moment she began her candidacy. During the debates in Miami last week, Harris and Sanders raised their hands when NBC’s Lester Holt asked which candidates would “abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan.” She retreated the next day, saying she thought Holt was referring to her personal insurance plan and answered “no” when asked if private coverage insurance should end.
She ran into a similar problem in January, when her campaign walked back a comment she made at a CNN town hall calling for getting “rid of” private insurance structures.
Larry Levitt, a health policy expert at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, said the intent of the Sanders bill is clear.
“As a practical matter, Senator Sanders’ Medicare for all bill would mean the end of private health insurance,” he said. “Employer health benefits would no longer exist, and private insurance would be prohibited from duplicating the coverage under Medicare.”
Sanders last week criticized Harris for splitting hairs, without mentioning her by name.
“If you support Medicare for All, you have to be willing to end the greed of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries,” he said. “That means boldly transforming our dysfunctional system by ending the use of private health insurance, except to cover non-essential care like cosmetic surgeries.”
In an email, Harris spokesman Ian Sams responded: “Kamala’s position is and has always been every American would get insurance through the single payer plan, and private insurance would exist to cover anything supplemental, as is expressly outlined in the Medicare for All bill. Seems like Bernie is saying that, too.”
Other 2020 candidates — Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand — also cosponsored Sanders’s bill.
‘I’m With Bernie’
Warren has given a far more direct endorsement than Harris of the idea of eliminating private insurance.
“I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All,” she said on the first night of the Democratic debates. “There are a lot of politicians who say, oh, it’s just not possible, we just can’t do it, have a lot of political reasons for this. What they’re really telling you is they just won’t fight for it.”
At the other end of the spectrum is former Vice President Joe Biden, who said he wants to build on Obamacare by adding a government-run plan to the menu of options, a provision that progressives tried and failed to add in 2009 amid opposition from centrist Democrats.
“Everyone, whether they have private insurance or employer insurance and no insurance, they, in fact, can buy in the exchange to a Medicare-like plan,” Biden said in the debate.
Hedging her position, Harris has also cosponsored “Medicare X” legislation by Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, another Democratic presidential candidate who’s running as a moderate. That measure would preserve private coverage while allowing Americans to buy into a government-run plan. But she said Friday on MSNBC she favors single payer with only supplemental private insurance.
An issue that united the party in 2018 has the potential to fracture it in 2020.
Abby Goodnough and Thomas Kaplan reported on the Democratic party debate and that It was a command as much as a question, intended to put an end to months of equivocating and obfuscating on the issue: Which of the Democratic presidential candidates on the debate stage supported abolishing private health insurance in favor of a single government-run plan? Show of hands, please.
Just four arms went up over the two nights — Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York on Wednesday, and Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kamala Harris of California on Thursday — even though five candidates who kept their hands at their sides have signed onto bills in Congress that would do exactly that.
And after the debate, Ms. Harris said that she had misunderstood the question, suggesting she had not meant to raise her hand either.
The response and ensuing confusion reflected one of the deepest fault lines among Democrats heading into 2020 — on an issue the party hopes to use as a cudgel against President Trump as effectively as it did last fall when their vow to protect the Affordable Care Act helped them recapture the House.
Though Democrats owned the health care issue in 2018, pointing a way forward — tear up the current system and start over or build on gains in coverage and care that the Obama health law achieved — is proving tricky for the party’s presidential candidates.
The challenge is to avoid alienating both the progressives, whose support they will need in the primary and the more moderate voters, without whom they cannot survive the general election.
We surveyed all the candidates for details of their positions on health care. Here’s what they said:
‘Medicare for All’ vs. ‘Public Option’: The 2020 Field Is Split, Our
In shooting up her hand and saying, “I’m with Bernie,” Ms. Warren seemed to have made the calculation that proving herself as unequivocal as Mr. Sanders in the quest for universal government-run health insurance was crucial to building the left-wing support she needs, including from some of his loyalists.
During the early months of the Democratic primary race, Ms. Warren has gained attention with her steady stream of detailed policy plans on a variety of subjects. But before Wednesday’s debate, she had been less than crystal clear about how she would expand access to health care— and particularly on the role, that private insurers should play under the type of Medicare-for-all system that she is calling for.
“I think lots of progressives were very happy to see her clarify her position,” said Waleed Shahid, the communications director for Justice Democrats, a group that seeks to elect progressive House candidates.
Ms. Harris had more overtly waffled on the future of private insurance before the debates, yet raised her hand just as quickly as Mr. Sanders when one of the moderators asked who favored abolishing it.
After the debate, she immediately walked it back, saying she understood the question to be asking whether she would give up her own private insurance.
Asked point-blank on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday morning whether she believed that private insurance should be eliminated in the United States, Ms. Harris responded, “No.”
“I am a proponent of ‘Medicare for all,’” she said. “Private insurance will exist for supplemental coverage.” Mr. Sanders’s Medicare for All Act, which she co-sponsored, would allow private coverage for elective procedures, like cosmetic surgery, not covered by the government plan.
John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman who is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, is taking every possible opportunity to warn that the party is at risk of turning health care from a winning issue into a liability.
“We won on health care in 2018, and if we go down the path with Medicare for all, we’ll lose on it in 2020,” he said in an interview. “Right now, about half of our citizens have private insurance and most of them like it. And you just can’t win elections on taking something away from the American people that they like. It’s just not common sense.”
Ironically, support for universal government-run health insurance could provoke the same counterattack from Republicans that the Democrats used so potently after the Trump administration tried to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
“Trump and the Republicans will spend a billion dollars telling the American people that the Democrats want to take away your health insurance,” Mr. Delaney said, “and he would be correct.”
Mr. Trump appears to be adopting just such a strategy. In a recent Rose Garden appearance, he warned that more than 120 Democrats had signed onto Medicare for all legislation — a “massive government takeover of health care,” as he put it — that would expand Medicare to cover all Americans, make the program’s benefits more generous and eliminate most deductibles and co-payments.
“That’s going to hurt a lot of people,” Mr. Trump said. “Their plan would eliminate Medicare as we know it and terminate the private health insurance of 180 million Americans.”
Remaining imprecise on the issue could have been a vulnerability for Ms. Warren in particular as she tries to compete with Mr. Sanders. “Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan for Everything — Except Health Care,” read the headline of a recent article published by Jacobin, the socialist magazine.
But her outright call for eliminating private coverage would create new risks if she were to become the Democratic nominee.
“She didn’t have to fall into that trap,” said Paul Starr, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton who was a health policy adviser in the Clinton White House.
Not only would abolishing private insurance disrupt coverage for many people who are satisfied with their private coverage, Mr. Starr said, but generating the revenue needed to finance a single-payer health care system “would be just an overwhelming political task.”
“If in coming weeks and months it’s that raising of the hand that gets replayed again and again, then I think it’s going to damage her,” he said.
With Mr. Trump and his surrogates likely to step up their attack in the coming months, it was not particularly surprising to hear most of the Democrats walk a more cautious line — even the ones who have co-sponsored Mr. Sanders’s single-payer bill or a House version that would, in fact, put everyone into government-run coverage, including Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
All three were more vague when questioned about eliminating private insurance. Mr. Booker said he favored keeping it but did not explain why and Ms. Gabbard said merely that it deserved “some form of a role.”
Many candidates — including some who say their ultimate goal is a government-run system — support a system in which people would have the option to buy into Medicare or a similar public insurance program, but private insurers could still compete for their business.
Ms. Gillibrand was eager to point out that she had written the portion of the Sanders bill allowing four years for Americans to transition to their new government coverage by providing such a choice.
“I believe we need to get to universal health care as a right and not a privilege — to single-payer,” Ms. Gillibrand said. “The quickest way you get there is you create competition with the insurers. God bless the insurers. If they want to compete, they can certainly try.”
More likely, though, she contended, is that “people will choose Medicare, you will transition, we will get to Medicare for all.”
The hesitancy to fully embrace the abolition of private insurance isn’t surprising considering the polling on the issue, which has consistently found that support for Medicare for all drops off quickly when voters are told it would eliminate their private, employer-provided plans and most likely raise taxes.
The poll results also help explain why so many candidates — including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas — say they would keep private insurance but add a “public option” to buy coverage in a government-run health plan that would create competition and potentially drive down prices.
Some candidates support bills that would allow people who do not get insurance through a job, or those 50 and older, to pay a premium to buy a Medicare plan that would be the same as what is now available to people 65 and older. Others prefer the idea of setting up a new public plan, run by the government, that anyone could buy — a “Medicare-for-all-who-want-it” approach.
Mr. Buttigieg used that very phrase on Thursday and suggested he was fine with keeping private insurance for everything but the most basic care.
“Let’s remember,” he said, “even in countries that have outright socialized medicine — like England — even there, there’s still a private sector. That’s fine. It’s just that for our primary care, we can’t be relying on the tender mercies of the corporate system.”
Mr. Biden noted that creating a public option to compete with private insurance could be done much quicker than a complete overhaul of the health care system.
“Urgency matters,” Mr. Biden said, referring to people like his son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015. “We must move now.”
How might Medicare for All reshape health care in the U.S.?
As the Democrats pummel us all with their various forms of a single-payer, Medicare for All, healthcare systems, Sharita Forrest noted that a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll indicates that support for a single-payer health system is increasing among American consumers, but many people are confused about how a program like “Medicare for All” would actually affect them. University of Illinois professor emeritus of community health Thomas W. O”Rourke, an expert on health policy analysis, spoke with News Bureau research editor Sharita Forrest.
How might a single-payer system such as Medicare for All differ from what we have now?
Under a true single-payer program, coverage would be universal, with every resident covered from birth to death. Health care would become a public service funded through taxes, much like the public schools, the fire department and the military.
It would detach health care from employment. Most Americans receive private health insurance under a shared-cost arrangement with their employers or through Medicare. If you lose or change your job, you may lose your insurance and access to care unless you can pay the full cost yourself.
Coverage would be portable and accessible across the country, without geographical, economic or bureaucratic obstacles such as narrow provider networks.
Various politicians are proposing different types of health care programs. What are the key differences to watch for?
Many politicians and think tanks have proposed plans that are not actual single-payer plans but have similar-sounding names such as “Medicare Extra.”
The key questions to ask are: Who is covered? What benefits are included? How is it funded? Who pays? And what are the roles of the government and the private sector in controlling and managing costs?
A true single-payer plan:
- Provides universal coverage for everyone.
- Covers all medically necessary care—including inpatient and outpatient services, drugs, mental health, reproductive health, dental, vision, and long-term care—and virtually every provider is in the network.
- Covers 100 percent of costs without premiums, copays or deductibles.
- Maximizes administrative efficiencies and exerts cost-control measures such as global budgeting for hospitals, negotiated fee schedules, and drug prices, and bulk purchasing of drugs and other supplies.
- Is nonprofit and does not include a role for private health insurance except that private insurers could offer supplemental plans that pay for extras like cosmetic surgery that aren’t covered by the government plan.
What would the federal government’s role be in a single-payer system?
The government would finance the system, but, importantly, not own or operate it. It would be publicly funded but privately operated.
There are many options for funding it, including payroll taxes, taxes on Wall Street trades, increased taxes on high-income earners or taxes on investments and interest.
If the program followed other countries’ examples, it would reduce costs by consolidating administrative tasks and eliminating insurers’ profits. Because there would be one payer instead of multiple payers with thousands of plans, the government could leverage its purchasing power to exert cost controls that currently don’t exist.
Critics argue that a single-payer program would end up costing consumers more. Can such comprehensive care be provided without burdensome tax hikes?
It would require a modest tax increase, true, but eliminating health insurance premiums, copays, high out-of-pocket costs would offset that and runaway price increases. The taxes would be progressive, based on income. Therefore, many families would experience broader coverage with comparable or reduced expenditures.
Our current system wastes hundreds of billions of dollars annually, in part because providers have to deal with many different insurance carriers and bill each patient individually.
A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that administrative costs are responsible for 31 percent of U.S. health care costs, compared with about 17 percent in Canada. Through simplified administration and greater efficiency, some researchers estimate that Medicare for All would save more than $500 billion a year.
According to a Commonwealth Fund report, the U.S. ranks last among 11 industrialized countries on health care quality, efficiency, access to care, equity and outcomes such as infant mortality and longevity.
If the U.S. were in the Health Olympics, we would never make it to the medal podiums.
By 2025, health care costs in the U.S. are expected to rise to one-fifth of our economy. Some people say we can’t afford to provide universal coverage when actually we can’t afford not to provide it.
Opponents deride single-payer plans as socialized medicine that facilitates greater government encroachment into their lives and deprives them of choice. Is that an accurate depiction?
Americans are concerned about affordability, access, and quality. They value their relationship with their clinicians, not their health insurance companies.
Currently, we have the illusion of choice. Our employers choose our health plan, and our insurance companies determine which providers we can see and when—unless we want to cover all of the costs ourselves.
Under a true Medicare for All program, choice and access would expand.
What are the main obstacles to implementing a single-payer system?
There seems to be a lack of public understanding. Health care is a complex topic, and there are so many different proposals and so much misinformation and disinformation. Expect much more in the months ahead.
Entrenched interests—including insurers, many health care providers, the pharmaceutical industry and medical device makers—don’t want to give up their profits. We’re already seeing the pushback in the media.
Many lawmakers aren’t going to get behind a single-payer plan until it’s politically expedient.
There was an interesting comment made this past week, President Trump can’t win the 2020 election but the Democratic Party policies will be responsible for their loss, where they reach into all of our pockets and pick every cent and dollar that we have earned. How true!!
Some more history regarding Medicare and now, Medicaid!
Title XIX: Medicaid. The 1965 legislation provided states a number of options regarding their level of participation in Medicaid, ranging from opting out of the program entirely to including all covered services for all eligible classes of persons. The federal government provided matching funds for two of the three groups stipulated in the legislation (the “categorically needy” and those “categorically linked,”) while in the case of the third group (“not categorically linked but medically indigent”) only administrative funds (and no medical expenses) were matched. Each state was required to include members of the first group, the categorically needy, in the medical care program acceptable to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, while the inclusion of the other groups was optional. Eligibility standards varied (and continued to vary) from state to state, depending on the state legislation. The three groups were:
- The Categorically Needy. This group included all persons receiving federally matching public welfare assistance, including Families and Dependent Children, the permanently and totally disabled, the blind, and the elderly whose resources fell below welfare-stipulated levels. The federal government matched state expenditures from 50 to 80 percent, depending on the state’s per capita income.
- The Categorically Linked. This class included persons who fell into one of the four federally assisted categories whose resources exceeded the ceiling for cash assistance. Should the state designate members of this class as medically indigent, benefits had to be extended to all four subgroups. The amount of federal matching funds was determined by the same formula as was used for the Categorically Needy.
- Not Categorically Linked but Medically Indigent. Members of this group could include those eligible for the statewide general assistance and those between the ages of twenty-one and sixty-five deemed medically indigent. State operating expenses were not matched by the federal government, who confined their grants to match the costs of administering the program if the benefits extended to members of this group were comparable to those provided to other groups.
Next, I will cover the benefits that the various states were required to provide recipients.
These all sound like great ideas unless one realizes the limitations of reimbursements to hospitals, physicians and other care givers.