Second night of Democratic debate turns into slugfest over health care

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

For the second straight night, the Democratic debate started with an extended conversation on health care, and heated up quickly when CNN pitted Sen. Kamala Harris against former Vice President Joe Biden, the duo who had clashed in the first round of debates last month.

Harris said her new public option health care plan wasn’t “a have-it-every-which-way approach,” as Biden said, and that she had crafted a plan that would allow private insurance and would go into effect over a 10-year period.

Biden struck back by criticizing the time frame.

“Well, my response is that the senator has had several plans so far. And anytime someone tells you you’re going to get something good in 10 years, you should wonder why it takes 10 years,” said Biden, adding, “And to be very blunt and to be very straightforward, you can't beat President Trump with double-talk on this plan.”

Related: Explaining the difference between single-payer and public option >>>

Harris replied by pointing out Biden’s plan building off of Obamacare was not true universal coverage and would still leave millions of Americans without health care, adding, “The cost of doing nothing is far too expensive.”

“I’m going to go back to Vice President Biden, because your plan does not cover everyone in America,” said Harris. “By your staff’s and your own definition, 10 million people — as many as 10 million people will not have access to health care. And in 2019 in America, for a Democrat to be running for president with a plan that does not cover everyone, I think is without excuse.”

Both frontrunners seemed less comfortable discussing health care than Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren did defending Medicare for All during Tuesday night’s debate. Biden conflated deductibles, the amount patients pay out of pocket before insurance kicks in, and copays, the amount that patients pay for receiving services. He also bounced between $3 trillion and $30 trillion as a cost for Medicare for All. (A libertarian-leaning study earlier this year found that Sanders’s Medicare for All plan would cost $32 trillion over 10 years, which is cheaper than what the current plan would cost over the same time frame.)

Harris had touted the support of former Obama administration Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for her program, an endorsement complicated by Sebelius’s serving on the board of a company that sells Medicare Advantage programs. Medicare Advantage plans, which could be expanded under the Harris proposal, are a subject of concern given that insurance companies have already been accused of overcharging the government an estimated $30 billion over the last three years. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii attempted to hit Harris on this fact but incorrectly said that Sebelius had written the bill instead of endorsed it.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris sparring at the second Democratic primary debate. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Other candidates weighed in on the topic. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York attempted to pivot to Republican attempts to strip millions of Americans of their health care via a lawsuit working its way to the Supreme Court. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado pushed his public option plan, which would allow Americans to buy into a government plan but would retain private insurance, and criticized Harris for not being honest about her plan.

“He — we — cannot keep with the Republican talking points on this,” said Harris of Bennet’s criticisms. “You got to stop. The reality is that under my Medicare for All plan, yes, employers are not going to be able to dictate the kind of health care that their employees get.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was the most outspoken supporter of Medicare for All, clashing with Bennet over his public option proposal.

“I don’t understand why Democrats on this stage are fearmongering about universal health care,” said de Blasio. “It makes no sense. Ask the American people. They are sick of what the pharmaceutical companies are doing to them. Ask them what they feel about the health insurance companies. They feel it’s holding back their families because they can’t get the coverage they need. They get a lot of noes. They don’t get a lot of help from health insurance companies.”