These Are the Health-Care Questions That Matter Most

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Health care got headline billing at both of this week’s second round of Democratic presidential debates. Unfortunately for voters, neither was very illuminating. 

The biggest culprit was the format. Jumping between 10 candidates every 30 seconds made any substantive debate and discussion impossible. The moderators also deserve blame; they asked myopic questions intended to provoke conflict instead of getting any new information. And the candidates didn’t exactly help; there was a lot of sniping and not a lot of clear explanation of what they wanted to do. 

The next debates may well be an improvement, as a more stringent cutoff should help to narrow the field and give candidates added time to engage in thoughtful discourse. Regardless, here are the issues that matter, and should be at the heart of any discussion: 

  • The issue of how candidates would propose paying for their various health-care plans has been framed in the debates by the question, “Will you raise middle-class taxes?” That’s a limited and unhelpful approach. Raising taxes shouldn’t be a yes or no question; it’s a trade-off. Americans already pay a lot for health care in the form of premiums, deductibles, co-payments, and doctor's bills. Why is that regressive system, which rations care by income, different or better than a more progressive tax? 
  • Insurer and drugmaker profits, both of which got airtime at the debates, are only a part of the problem when it comes to America’s high health costs.  The disproportionately high prices Americans pay for care are a bigger issue. What we pay hospitals and doctors, and how we can bring those costs down, are crucial issues that the candidates have barely discussed. What’s their plan there?
  • The first round of debates saw the moderators ask candidates to raise their hands if they would eliminate private health coverage. Round two did essentially the same thing without the roll call. The idea of wiping out private insurance seems to be a flashpoint, but there doesn’t seem to be as much interest in questioning the merits of the current, mostly employer-based system. It’s no utopia. Americans unwillingly lose or change employer coverage all the time, and our fragmented system does an awful job of keeping costs down. People who support eliminating or substantially reducing the role of private coverage deserve scrutiny, but so do those who want to retain it. What’s so great about the status quo?
These Are the Health-Care Questions That Matter Most

As the field narrows, voters need specifics. A chunk of the field has been remarkably vague. Answers to these questions could offer some clarity:

  • For Senator Elizabeth Warren: Are there any differences between your vision of “Medicare for All” and Senator Bernie Sanders’s? There’s wiggle room here; his plan is more expansive (and expensive) than single-payer systems in countries like Canada. 
  • For Senator Kamala Harris: What will your plan cover and how much will it cost? The skeletal outline of Harris’s plan lacks details on premiums and what patients would have to pay for out of pocket. She didn’t clarify matters at the debate. 
  • For former Vice President Joe Biden: Will people with access to employer insurance be eligible for subsidies in your public option plan? If the answer is no or restrictive, his public option could have a relatively limited impact. It the answer is yes, his $750 billion cost estimate should head to the dustbin. 
  • For the morass of candidates
These Are the Health-Care Questions That Matter Most
  • who pay lip service to Medicare for All but want to keep private insurance but don’t have a specific plan: What exactly do you want?

Health care is the most important issue for Democrats, according to polling. We need to find a way to have a discussion that does it justice. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Max Nisen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, pharma and health care. He previously wrote about management and corporate strategy for Quartz and Business Insider.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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