MIAMI (Reuters) – Democratic presidential contenders battled over healthcare coverage during their first debate on Wednesday, reflecting the party’s divisions on whether to abolish private insurance and shift to a Medicare-for-All system.
In the first of two back-to-back debates featuring 10 candidates each night, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio were the only two candidates to raise their hands when asked who supported a system that eliminated private insurance.
Warren, a leader of the party’s progressive wing who has been surging in opinion polls, said private insurance was taking advantage of Americans. She backs a government-sponsored Medicare-for-All approach and criticized those who said that was not politically feasible.
“What they are really telling you is they just won’t fight for it. Healthcare is a basic right, and I will fight for it,” she said.
But former U.S. Representative John Delaney, an outspoken critic of Medicare for All who supports a universal healthcare approach that would include private insurance, said Democrats should not throw away a system that some Americans are happy with.
“I think we should be the party that keeps what’s working and fixes what’s broken,” Delaney said.
After years of defending former Democratic President Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare law known as Obamacare from Republican attempts to repeal it, Democrats have struggled to agree on the best approach to fixing it.
The Medicare for All approach pushed by Warren and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, which has gained growing support in Congress, would create a government-operated plan that eliminates private insurance. It is modeled on the Medicare government healthcare program for seniors.
Former congressman Beto O’Rourke said private insurance was “fundamental to our ability to get everybody cared for,” but de Blasio cut him off.
“Congressman O’Rourke, private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans when you talk about the copays, the deductibles the premiums – it’s not working. How can you defend a system that’s not working?”
The first debate could be a make-or-break moment for some of the contenders struggling to be noticed in a crowded Democratic field of more than 20 candidates battling for the right to face Republican President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election.
All 10 participants in the first encounter had an opportunity to step out of the shadow cast by front-runners Joe Biden and Sanders, who are scheduled to take the stage on Thursday night.
Warren, gaining strength in opinion polls, was the headliner on the opening night. She was joined onstage by nine other candidates, including U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar and O’Rourke.
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Booker, Klobuchar and O’Rourke have had their moments during the first few months of the race, but they have not broken through yet to mount a serious challenge to the top contenders.
Former U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro, de Blasio, former congressman John Delaney, U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee and U.S. Representative Tim Ryan also were on the stage. They all fall below 1% nationally in opinion polls and will be looking mainly to live to fight another day.
Trump hinted he would not tweet his reactions live during the first debate, which is taking place as he flies aboard Air Force One to Osaka, Japan, for a G20 summit.
But shortly after it began, he could not help himself. “BORING!” he tweeted.