‘What they’re really telling you is they just won’t fight for it…’
(Sahil Kapur, Bloomberg News) Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who surged to one of the top spots in the Democratic primary race, continues to flip–flop on a number of issues—foremost among them the government socialization of medical insurance.
Harris has said, at times, that she supports “Medicare for All,” and she has co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is also vying for the 2020 presidential nomination.
But unlike Sanders, Harris has since backpedaled on her earlier position that she would favor the elimination of private insurance.
Now, even some on the Left are calling her claims misleading.
The Sanders-proposed measure that she co-sponsored would, in fact, 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.
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.”
But as polls show Americans strongly oppose the elimination of private insurance, Harris is trying to find a narrow path between two competing constituencies in the Democratic Party.
On one side are radical fringe progressives who passionately support so-called single payer insurance and are pushing the party leftward. 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.
Harris’s attempts to please both camps could become a vulnerability, despite her a strong performance in humiliating former Vice President Joe Biden with a withering race-bait attack on his opposition to busing during last week’s debates
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.
Even Sanders criticized Harris last week 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,” he said.
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.”
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 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 co-sponsored “Medicare X” legislation by Sen. 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.
Harris continued to defend that position in West Des Moines, Iowa, on Wednesday, saying that losing one’s private insurance doesn’t mean losing one’s doctor.
“I am for Medicare for All,” she told reporters. “I think that that if you talk with people extensively enough, nobody’s in the position of really trying to defend their insurance company. What they want to know is that they’re going to be able to keep their doctor under Medicare for All. They will be.”
Single payer proponents argue that a “public option” isn’t feasible as it would attract only the sickest people and drive up costs; they say a national program that covers everybody is necessary to pool risk and keep prices down.
But Democrats who prefer a government option argue that it’s the most pragmatic way to extend coverage.
At a campaign stop in Waterloo, Iowa, on Wednesday, Biden seemed to take aim at Harris and others who he said wanted to “start over” on health care.
“I fundamentally disagree with anyone who says scrap Obamacare,” he said. “I’m against any Republican who wants to scrap it, I’m against any Democrat who wants to scrap it.”
(Jennifer Epstein contributed to this report.)
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