As a Presidential Candidate, Kamala Harris Had Difficulty Navigating Healthcare Issues

August 12, 2020
Peter Wehrwein
Peter Wehrwein

Harris ended up proposing a moderate Medicare for all plan modeled on the Medicare Advantage choice that seniors now have.

It’s fair to say — and to say it rather mildly — that healthcare was not a strong suit for Kamala Harris when she was running for the Democratic presidential nomination last year.

A Washington Post video last August was titled “Kamala Harris keeps shifting her health care position.” And Paige Winfield Cunningham, the newspaper’s national reporter for healthcare and author of its Health 202 healthare ewsletter characterized her as “making confusing statements about whether or not she’d eliminate commercial health insurance.”

This is the New York Times yesterday: “During her presidential bid, Ms. Harris got tangled up by the issue of health care. She was not the only candidate to suffer that fate, but her stumbles were memorable."

Like several other of the Democratic presidential candidates (Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand), Harris was a co-sponsor of the Medicare for All legislation famously authored by Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“Medicare for all stands for the proposition that all Americans from the day of their birth throughout their lives will have access to healthcare,” Harris said at a rousing 2017 press conference about the legislation with Sanders lookin on. Harris also spoke of the ROI on broad-based healthcare coverage, referencing blood pressure control and reduced emergency room visits in particular. She has spoken consistently since about health care being a right not a privilege and on the benefits — including the financial benefits — of prevention and early. When Sanders re-introduced the legislation in 2019, Harris remained one of the co-sponsors.

Harris started to run into trouble navigating healthcare last January during a townhall-style session with Jake Tapper of CNN. When Tapper asked her about eliminating private insurance, which turned out to be the most controversial part of Sanders's plan, Harris talked about insurance company approvals and paperwork. “Let’s eliminate all of that. Let’s move on,” she said, according to excerpt of the exchange posted by Chris Cillizza, an editor-at-large for the network.

But her campaign subsequently put out statements that she was open to more moderate plans that wouldn’t eliminate the industry.

The notion started to stick that Harris was, at the very least, fuzzy on her healthcare plans and wavering on Medicare for all.

It got stickier still. In June of last year, Harris raised her hand when the debate host, Lester Holt, asked the candidates whether they would abolish private insurance in favor of a government-run plan.” On a television show the next day, Harris said she misunderstood the question and qualified her answer.

Then, a month later, Harris put her own plan, which was generally characterized as being a good deal less moderate than what Sanders and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party envisioned.

For one thing, Harris’s plan called for expanding Medicare over a 10-year period, not four as Sanders proposed.

But more importantly, rather than abolish private insurance, Harris proposed allowing companies to sell and operate Medicare Advantage-like plans but for the general population once Medicare was expandd.

“Kamala Harris Unveils ‘Medicare for All Plan that Preserves Private Insurance,” was a Bloomberg headline, and the “preservation of private insurance” became the chief takeaway about it.

Harris defended her shift by saying that the plans would be tightly regulated. “Medicare will set the rules of the road for these plans, including price and quality, not the other way around,” she wrote in Medium post describing her plan.

Her other selling point was choice: “This preserves the options that seniors have today and expands options to all Americans, while also telling insurance companies they don’t run the show.”

Harris’s got some props for putting out a plan that was feasible and had centerish political appeal. For example, Vox quoted former CMS Administrator Andy Slavitt as saying that Harris had balanced idealism and pragmatism. But proponents of the Sanders version of Medicare of all were critical of the role that Harris left for private insurers.

As the campaign went on, Harris gamely defended her plans as accomplishing Medicare for all but leaving people a choice about who, in effect, manages their coverage. She invoked the choice that seniors have now between sticking with traditional Medicare or signing up for a Medicare Advantage plan. But she was also put on the defensive a good deal as she fielded questions about whether she had folded to the interests of the health insurance industry and flip-flopped from her early support and sponsorship of Sanders’s Medicare for all legislation.

Harris dropped out of the race in December last year before any caucuses and primaries. The early departrue surprised some reporters and commenters. A New York Times piece about why her campaign faltered mentioned her lack of command of healthcare issues.

But a Los Angeles Times story about what the end of her campaign meant for Harris and the Democrats was spot-on prescient.

“On the more immediate horizon is the possibility of being chosen as someone’s vice presidential running mate,” wrote Mark Z. Barabak last December. “One of the main job descriptions, leading the attack on the opposition, is a role for which the pugnacious ex-prosecutor seems particularly well suited.”