Kamala Harris reverses debate answer about abolishing private health insurance

Sen. Kamala Harris is interviewed in the “spin room” after the conclusion of the second night of the first U.S. 2020 presidential election Democratic candidates debate in Miami, Florida, U.S., June 27, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Carlo Allegri

WASHINGTON – Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said Friday that she does not support abolishing private health insurance in the United States, saying she misheard a question from NBC’s moderators about Medicare-for-all during the presidential debate.

Thursday night, Harris alone joined Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in raising her hand when all of the candidates were asked if they would outlaw private health insurance in favor of a government single-payer plan.

But appearing on “Morning Joe” on Friday, Harris suggested she had incorrectly heard the question as being about whether she personally would be willing to use a government plan instead of a private one. NBC’s Lester Holt had asked: “Many people watching at home have health insurance through their employer. Who here would abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan?”

Harris later said that she would in fact preserve supplemental private insurance. Some journalists said on Twitter during the debate Thursday night that they also had understood Holt to be asking about the candidates’ personal health-care choices. But some critics questioned Harris’s reversal, noting that this is not the first time Harris or her campaign have clarified her remarks on private insurance after a live television performance.

Lily Adams, a spokeswoman for the Harris campaign, said on MSNBC on Friday that Harris has been “very clear” about her stance on private insurance, also noting that some supplemental insurance is available under Sanders’s single-payer plan.

The exact role of private insurance under Medicare-for-all has provoked substantial confusion over the course of the Democratic presidential campaign.

In 2017, Harris and several other Democratic senators now running for president announced their support for Sanders’s Medicare-for-all legislation, which would move about 217 million Americans who receive their insurance through a private plan – as well as everyone else in the country – onto a single government insurance plan. The plan would outlaw all private health insurance coverage that is duplicative with this generous government plan, leaving only room for a handful of supplemental services, such as cosmetic surgery.

“As a technical matter, the Medicare-for-all bill would allow private insurers to sell supplemental policies for benefits not covered by the government plan,” Larry Levitt, senior vice president for health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said in May. “As a practical matter, the government plan covers such a comprehensive set of benefits that there would be virtually no role for private insurance.”

But a number of the Democratic presidential candidates have said they support Medicare-for-all and have downplayed its disruptive impact on existing private insurance, pointing to European countries that have single-payer systems while retaining supplemental coverage. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, has said he supports Medicare-for-all but proposed ideas that look very different from Sanders’s, touting a public option that would allow Americans to buy into Medicare and leave private insurance largely intact.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio have joined Sanders in saying that they support the abolition of private health insurance. But Harris, on Friday, appeared to suggest that she does not agree with them.

“No, no, I do not,” she told “Morning Joe” when asked about eliminating private insurance. “I am a proponent of Medicare-for-all. Private insurance will exist for supplemental coverage.”

Sanders has tried to highlight the distinction, in part, to draw a contrast with the candidates who may not push as aggressively to overhaul the nation’s health-care system. After the Republican National Committee cited Sanders’s comment that he wanted to eliminate the insurance companies, Sanders tweeted: “You’re damn right.”

Harris did not respond to a Washington Post survey several months ago about whether she would support “essentially” getting rid of private health insurance as part of a move to a single-payer system.

Asked about the issue by CNN in January, Harris appeared to embrace the elimination of private health insurance. “Who of us has not had that situation where you’ve got to wait for approval, and the doctor says, ‘Well, I don’t know if your insurance company is going to cover this’?” she said. “Let’s eliminate all of that. Let’s move on.”

Amid a backlash the next day, a Harris campaign aide told CNN the candidate would also be open to other health plans that would preserve private industry.

Robert Hockett, an expert in public policy at Cornell University, said it was unclear if all the candidates who say they support Medicare-for-all believe in the virtual elimination of private health insurance that Sanders’s plan would entail.

“Since Medicare-for-all is a buzzword among progressives, many candidates have gotten on board at least with the phrase,” Hockett said. “But it’s not always clear what the phrase means for each candidate. This whole debate needs clarification.”



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