Elizabeth Warren Still Isn’t Getting Specific on Medicare for All

Elizabeth Warren’s stance on health care reform has been murky throughout her campaign, so her health care plank announced last week was welcome. Unfortunately, that plank still doesn’t answer some fundamental questions about where exactly she stands on Medicare for All.

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a rally in Washington Square Park on September 16, 2019 in New York City. Drew Angerer / Getty

Elizabeth Warren, whose presidential campaign has been plagued from the start by ambiguity on the subject of health care, finally added a health care plank to her website last week. Unfortunately, it tells us nothing new about where she stands.

The webpage — which reiterates Warren’s support for Medicare for All without referencing a specific bill — is frustratingly sparse on detail. There’s nothing about eliminating premiums, co-pays, and deductibles. Nothing about expanding Medicare to cover dental, vision, hearing, and mental care. Nothing about prohibiting private insurers from competing with the public Medicare for All program — and indeed, no reference to “single payer” health care at all.

Instead, Warren’s platform focuses mostly on incremental reforms like lowering prescription drug costs, expanding access to care in rural areas, investing in communities hit by the opioid addiction crisis, and regulating private insurers to make sure they’re adequately covering mental health services — all desperately needed reforms, of course, whose significance shouldn’t be downplayed. But those reforms don’t add up to a wholesale transformation of the American health care system. Without such a transformation, our system will continue to enrich health care executives while failing millions.

When Warren’s plan does discuss long-term solutions, the page is packed with language that could apply to a number of different approaches. Warren says her version of Medicare for All will “provide all Americans with a public health program.” This could be interpreted as describing a true single-payer plan, but in fact it’s unclear whether the public health program Warren refers to will replace private insurers outright, or merely compete alongside them. Generously assuming the former, it remains unclear what services Warren’s program would cover, and what kind of out-of-pocket costs it would include.

Warren says that under her plan, “nobody goes broke.” This is also positive, but far too vague. Under Sanders’s Medicare for All plan, all medical care will be provided free at the point of service — no bills or out-of-pocket costs whatsoever. In other words, not only will “nobody go broke,” but all health care services will be free. Is this what Warren supports? If so, why doesn’t she make such a key detail explicit?

Perhaps the biggest open question about Warren’s Medicare for All stance, the transition from our current system to Medicare for All, likewise goes unaddressed. Again, assuming that Warren’s ultimate goal is a single-payer system, she says nothing to elaborate on how she hopes to get there.

In a recent interview with Ady Barkan, a prominent Medicare for All activist with ALS, Warren mentioned that she has “concerns” about the four-year transition to a single-payer system that Sanders’s bill outlines — but never explained what her concerns are or how she would better approach the move. Would Warren’s transition be two years, like Pramila Jayapal’s Medicare for All bill in the House of Representatives? Or ten years, like Kamala Harris’s phony Medicare for All plan?

To Warren’s credit, she’s done a good job defending Medicare for All alongside Sanders in primary debates, standing in opposition to candidates like Biden who echo industry lies about the policy. But she has not backed that up on the campaign trail or, now, in the platform on her website.

After the primary debate on September 12, a CBS reporter asked Warren if she’ll be introducing a detailed health care plan of her own. Her response was evasive.

“I support Medicare for All. I think it’s a good plan,” she said, before quickly adding, “I support a lot of plans. Other things that people have come up with, when they’re good plans, let’s do it. This isn’t some sort of contest.”

But an election is literally a contest, and right now Warren is the only competitor without a clear stance on health care. Biden supports a limited public option that competes on the ACA exchanges and leaves at least ten million people uninsured. Harris supports a more robust public plan that exists alongside private “Medicare Advantage” plans, permanently guaranteeing private insurers’ role in the health care system. And Sanders, of course, supports a single, public plan that guarantees comprehensive, free-at-use care to all American residents.

Warren, in contrast to such specificity, seems committed to her long-running strategy of gesturing just enough support for Medicare for All to appease the public (who overwhelmingly demand it) while leaving herself enough wiggle room to avoid committing to Sanders’s bill outright.

It’s tempting to give Warren the benefit of the doubt. After all, she cosponsors Sanders’s senate bill and has said she’s “with Bernie” on health care. But two of her primary rivals — Harris and Cory Booker — also cosponsor Sanders’s bill, and that hasn’t stopped them from campaigning on public option proposals instead.

For Warren to properly back up her gestures of support for Medicare for All, she needs to finally get specific. That means either citing Sanders’s bill directly in her campaign materials, or proposing something of her own that meets the bill’s core, uncompromising principles: eliminating all out-of-pocket costs, covering all medically necessary care, establishing universal coverage, banning private insurers from offering competing coverage, and guaranteeing a just transition for insurance industry workers whose jobs are impacted.

Warren’s continued ambiguity on Medicare for All is more appealing to donors than it is to voters, as it suggests that the policy is simply not a priority for her. That’s not going to fly with single-payer advocates, and Warren’s supporters shouldn’t tolerate it. Medicare for All faces a tidal wave of opposition from industry profiteers, the corporate media, the Trump administration, and the Democratic establishment. In order to achieve it, a president will need to confront each of these actors head-on while mobilizing a mass movement of working people demanding nothing less than true single-payer health care.

Sanders promises to do exactly that. Warren is running out of time to convince voters that she’ll do the same.