Earlier this week, Sen. Kamala Harris was asked whether she really wanted to pass a Medicare for All bill that would eliminate private insurance. Her unexpectedly firm answer? Yes. “Let’s eliminate all of that,” said told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “Let’s move on.”
On Wednesday, Harris’s fellow Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren was asked roughly the same question during an interview with Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal. Her response was, um, much less firm. (The key parts are italicized at the end).
Joe Weisenthal: Is there room for private health insurance in your vision of the ideal American health care system.
Elizabeth Warren: So, let’s start with the battle we’re having right now and talk about the things we need to be doing, because I don’t want to lose sight of this. It’s good to talk about our overall goal, and here’s our overall goal. This is what distinguishes Democrats from Republicans. Democrats believe health care is a basic human right. And we fight for basic human rights. Our obligation is to make sure that everybody gets coverage at the lowest possible cost to all of us. So what does that mean? Right now, it means fighting the Republicans who are trying to sabotage the Affordable Care Act. We’ve got this lawsuit going on down in Texas where the Republicans are trying to do what they couldn’t do with the vote, and that is trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to make it OK to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions, to cut off access to health care for millions of Americans. So job number one is to defend the affordable care act.
Job number two is to make changes where we need to make them right now. Changes to hold insurance companies accountable when they’re trying to cheat people, when they’re trying to scam people. Changes right now, and what’s happening with drugs, prescription drugs. We need to lower the cost of prescription drugs. One in four Americans say they can’t take drugs that are prescribed to them because they can’t afford to pay for them. I have, for example here, a proposal for generic drugs, which are about 90 percent of prescriptions that people fill, to bring those costs down to just a nominal cost.
And the third, how do we get universal coverage. Medicare for all. Lots of paths for how to do that. But we know where we are aiming. And that is, every American has health care at a price they can afford. And that the overall costs in the system are held as low as possible.
Weisenthal: But right now, your vision for Medicare for all, would it all be a public option, or would it also include private insurance.
Warren: So right now, there are multiple bills on the floor in the United States Senate. I’ve signed onto Medicare for All. I’ve signed on to another one that gives an option for buying in to Medicaid. There are different ways we can get there. But the key has to be always keep the center of the bullseye in mind. And that is affordable health care for every American.
To some extent, Warren is just stating facts. There are obviously multiple ways to open up government health insurance to all Americans. Like fellow 2020 candidates Sens. Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and likely candidate Sen. Cory Booker, she has endorsed (other likely candidate) Sen. Bernie Sanders’ bill to create a true single-payer system, as well as more moderate plans. In fact, Sanders himself has done the same thing; along with Warren, he’s co-sponsored Sen. Brian Schatz’s legislation to let Americans buy into Medicaid on Obamacare’s exchanges.
The most notable part of this evasive response, however, is that Warren doesn’t say that single-payer health insurance is her goal, which was the question. She says affordable health care for every American is her goal, which is quite different. She’s open to single-payer, but isn’t signaling that she’s wedded to it.
Replacing our entire system of employer-based health insurance with a one government program is an extreme long-shot of a policy goal that would require an absolutely immense political effort by any president that would likely devour much of their first term in office. On Monday, I questioned whether Harris was really serious about the idea, given that it’s not at the top of her political to-do list (she says she wants to pass her massive middle class tax credit first). The fact that Warren won’t even commit to single-payer as her aim rhetorically makes it seem that she’s even less likely to push for it.