Updated at 10:40 a.m. ET on August 9, 2019.
With more than 20 people vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, it can be difficult to get a handle on the policy terrain. This is especially true in health care, where at least eight different plans are floating around, including from candidates whom few support, such as Michael Bennet, who wants to offer a public health plan in the small individual-insurance market.
Among the candidates polling in the double digits, three have offered actual health-care proposals (as opposed to vague statements): Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders, whose Medicare for All plan is also supported by Elizabeth Warren. These plans are similar in the most general sense, in that they expand coverage and affordability, but they are dramatically different in their particulars and in what they tell voters about the respective candidates. To understand any of that, however, you have to understand how insurance works right now.
Americans get insurance from four main sources.
The first source is Medicare, which covers nearly all elderly people and some disabled people. The “core” program consists of Medicare Part A, which pays for hospital treatment, and Medicare Part B, which pays for doctor visits. Medicare Part D covers prescription drugs, but is administered only by private insurance providers. Private Medigap plans provide supplemental insurance for some of the cost-sharing required by Parts A and B, while private Medicare Advantage plans essentially bundle all of the above into a single offering.
The second source is Medicaid, which covers low-income people and provides long-term care for disabled people. Medicaid is administered by states and jointly funded by state and federal governments. The Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid eligibility up the income ladder a bit, but some states did not go along with the expansion.
The third source is employer-sponsored insurance, which covers about 159 million workers, spouses, and children. Employer insurance is very costly, with the average family premium running just under $19,000 a year. For average wage workers living in a family of four, this premium is equal to 26.4 percent of their total labor compensation. If you count this premium as taxes for international comparison purposes, the average wage worker in the United States has the second-highest tax rate in the developed world, behind the Netherlands. As with Medicaid, employer insurance is very unstable, with people losing their insurance plan every time they separate from their job (66 million workers every year) or when their employer decides to change insurance carriers (15 percent of employers every year).
The final source is individual insurance purchased directly from a private insurer. Most of the people who buy this kind of insurance do so through the exchanges established by the Affordable Care Act. The exchanges provide income-based subsidies to individuals with incomes from 100 percent to 400 percent of the poverty line, but have mostly been a policy train wreck: Enrollments were 50 percent lower than predicted, insurers have quit the exchanges in droves, and the income cutoffs have caused disgruntlement among low-income participants who would rather have Medicaid and high-income participants who get no subsidy at all.
Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, America still has about 30 million uninsured people, a number that is predicted to increase to 35 million by 2029. Conservative estimates suggest that there is one unnecessary death annually for every 830 uninsured people, meaning that America’s level of uninsurance leads to more than 35,000 unnecessary deaths every year.
Biden has centered his candidacy on his association with Barack Obama. Given this strategy, it’s no surprise that he has put out a health plan that is meant to be as similar to Obamacare as possible.
The plan keeps the current insurance regime intact while tweaking some of the rules to fix a few of the pain points identified above. He closes the hole created by some states not expanding Medicaid by enrolling everyone stuck in that hole into a new public health plan for free. He soothes the disgruntlement of high-income people who buy unsubsidized individual insurance by extending subsidies beyond 400 percent of the poverty line. And he slightly increases the subsidy amount for those buying subsidized individual insurance on the exchanges.
In addition to these rule tweaks, Biden also says that the new public option for everyone in the Medicaid hole will also be available in the individual and employer insurance markets, meaning that people in those markets can buy into that public option rather than rely on private insurance.
Biden is probably correct to say that his plan is the most similar to Obamacare. And just like Obamacare, Biden’s plan will leave a lot of Americans uninsured. Specifically, his own materials say that 3 percent of Americans will still be uninsured after his reforms, which means that about 10 million Americans will continue to lack insurance and about 12,000 will die each year due to uninsurance.
Sanders is running as a progressive democratic socialist who wants America to offer the kinds of benefits available in countries such as Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway, or in even less left-wing countries such as Canada. Unlike Biden, he has no need or desire to wrap himself in the policies of the Obama era, and has instead come out in favor of a single-payer Medicare for All system.
Under the Sanders plan, the federal government will provide comprehensive health insurance that covers nearly everything people associate with medical care, including prescription drugs, hearing, dental, and vision. Over the course of four years, every American will be transitioned to the new public health plan. Going forward, rather than getting money to providers through a mess of leaky insurance channels, all money will flow through the single Medicare channel, which will cover everyone.
So far, Sanders has not adopted a specific set of “pay-fors” for his Medicare for All program, but has instead offered up lists of funding options. Although he has remained open on the specifics of funding Medicare for All, the overall Sanders vision is pretty clear: cut overall health spending while also redistributing health spending up the ladder so that the majority of families pay less for health care than they do now.
And this plan is plausible: The right-wing Mercatus Center found in 2018 that the Sanders plan reduces overall health spending by $2 trillion in the first 10 years. The nonpartisan Rand Corporation has constructed a similar single-payer plan, with pay-fors, for New York State that would result in health-care savings for all family income-groups below 1,000 percent of the poverty line ($276,100 for a family of four).
While Sanders’s support for Medicare for All helps promote his image as a supporter of universal social programs, Warren’s support for it helps boost her brand as a smart technocrat who understands good policy design. As Paul Krugman noted in 2007, a single-payer Medicare for All system is “simpler, easier to administer, and more efficient” than the “complicated, indirect” health-care system we have now. In general, single-payer systems are beloved by the wonk set because they are the most direct and cost-effective way to provide universal health insurance to a population.
If Biden’s plan is Obamacare 2.0 and the Sanders/Warren plan is wonky universalism, then Harris’s plan is a bizarre and confusing muddle that also has come to typify her campaign. Harris is the candidate who went hard after Biden for his views on busing many decades ago and then clarified the next day that her views are the same as Biden’s. She’s the candidate who said she wanted to get rid of private insurers and raised her hand when asked if she would be willing to swap out private insurance for Medicare for All, only to walk back both statements the very next day.
Harris’s health-care proposal, which is basically Medicare Advantage for All, is similar to the Sanders plan, except it takes 10 years to phase in instead of four and allows people to opt out of the public plan in favor of a private plan with identical coverage (similar to how Medicare Advantage works today). This weird hybrid allows Harris to insist that she is for Medicare for All while also saying that she is not getting rid of private insurance.
As readers can probably guess, I favor the Sanders plan on the merits. But what matters for voters may not be the particulars, which most voters will probably never be aware of, but rather what the plans say about the candidates. Voters who want Obama 2.0 will see in Biden’s health-care plan a reassuring fidelity to his predecessor. Voters interested in universal social programs or technocratic wonkiness will have another reason to like Sanders or Warren based on their Medicare for All plan. And voters who like Harris’s style and do not care about consistency can use Harris’s triangulated health-care policy to see what they want in her.