Elizabeth Warren’s Evolving Position on Health Care Reform

Back in March of 2018, Elizabeth Warren authored a bill titled, the Consumer Health Insurance Protection Act, which was aimed at further regulating private insurance companies. Here is how Warren described her proposal:

[A]s Warren made clear in a January speech before the consumer group Families USA, she understands that enacting a single-payer plan would be difficult ― and that, as a result, private insurance probably won’t disappear overnight. And so she also wants to focus on what can be done right away to subject the industry to the type of stringent consumer protections she has already successfully championed in the financial sector.

“So long as private health insurance exists, we should require these companies to provide coverage that is at least as good and priced as reasonably as the coverage offered by our public health care programs,” Warren said in January.

In February 2019, after announcing her candidacy for president, this is what Warren said about her position on health care reform.

“How do we get universal coverage, Medicare for all? Lots of paths for how to do that,” Warren said. “But we know where we are aiming. And that is, every American has health care at a price they can afford. And that the overall costs in the system are held as low as possible.”

Pressed to be more specific, she added: “There are multiple bills on the floor in the United States Senate. I’ve signed onto Medicare for All. I’ve signed on to another one that gives an option for buying in to Medicaid. There are different ways we can get there. But the key has to be always keep the center of the bulls-eye in mind. And that is affordable health care for every American.”

Then in June, during one of the Democratic debates, Warren said this:

I’m with Bernie on Medicare for all and let me tell you why. I’ve spent a big chunk of my life studying why families go broke. One of the number one reasons is the cost of healthcare. That’s not just for people who don’t have insurance, it’s for people who have insurance.

Look at the business model of an insurance company. It’s to bring in as many dollars as they can in premiums, and to pay out as few dollars as possible for your health care. That leaves families with rising premiums, rising co-pays, and fighting with insurance companies to try and get the health care that their doctors say that they and their children need.

Medicare for All solves that problem. And I understand, there are a lot of politicians who say, “Oh, its just not possible, we can’t do it”—have a lot of political reasons for this. What they’re really telling you is that they just won’t fight for it. Well, healthcare is a basic human right and I will fight for basic human rights.

From the beginning, Warren has been clear that ultimately, she supports Medicare for All. It is just that prior to the debates, she recognized that getting there would be difficult and was prepared to support more incremental steps that either protected consumers or laid out a path towards universal coverage. Lately, she doesn’t mention those proposals and accuses anyone who supports more incremental steps of not being willing to fight for this basic human right.

All of that is pretty confusing. But what makes it even more so is that the candidate who has made a name for herself by saying, “I have a plan for that,” hasn’t released her plan for health care reform—one of the top issues of concern for Democratic voters. As Paul Waldman suggests, she might be the one making political considerations.

When you’re forced to get specific, people will inevitably find things to criticize. If Warren releases something like Sanders’ plan, it’ll be called unrealistic; if she takes a more step-by-step approach to reform, some on the left will call it a betrayal.

Both the national press and critics of Kamala Harris had a field day when she backtracked on her comment about eliminating private insurance. The narrative stuck and now Harris has been tagged as the candidate who engages in politically convenient turnarounds. It is worth noting that Warren seems to have backtracked as well, traveling in the opposite direction. But hardly anyone has noticed.

Warren and Harris have done something that candidates tend to do during primary season as their positions solidify. Warren has made it abundantly clear that she ultimately supports universal coverage via a single-payer system. There is plenty of time for her to lay out something more specific and to address the question of whether she would support plans that move us in that direction.

But given her evolving positions and lack of specificity at this moment, Warren should refrain from accusing her Democratic colleagues of lacking courage when they propose reforms that are similar to what she has put forward in the very recent past.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.