Fact check: Kamala Harris says private insurance will exist under ‘Medicare for All.’ True?

Posted at 3:46 PM, Jun 28, 2019

California Sen. Kamala Harris has had trouble with the question of whether she would retain a role for private insurance in a “Medicare for All” system.

At a CNN town hall in January, Harris said she supported Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, and that she would be in favor of eliminating private insurance. She then spent months waffling on the issue, explaining that she would actually like to keep private insurance.

She faced a similar situation in Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, when NBC’s Lester Holt noted that many Americans get their insurance through their employers. He then asked for the 10 candidates onstage to raise their hands if their health care plans would “abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan?” Harris and Sanders were the only ones who raised their hands.

Harris and her campaign have been quick to clarify that. Harris said she thought the question was whether she’d be in favor of getting rid of her own private insurance plan and has insisted that supplemental private insurance would still be available under Medicare for All.

“I am supportive of a Medicare for All policy, and under a Medicare for All policy, private insurance would certainly exist for supplemental coverage,” she said Friday morning on CBS.

Facts First: This is technically true but needs more context. While Sanders’ Medicare for All plan does not ban private insurers, it leaves them only a tiny slice of the market to cover.

Under Medicare for All, insurers could not cover services that were included in the government-run plan, which would offer very comprehensive benefits, including doctors’ visits, emergency care, hospitalization, mental health, maternity, rehabilitation, prescription drugs, vision, dental and hearing aids.

Carriers could still sell policies that covered nonmedically necessary procedures, such as cosmetic surgery.

This would be very different from how supplemental private insurance works in other countries that provide publicly financed coverage, such as Canada and Denmark — which Sanders and Medicare for All supporters often point to as examples.

Two-thirds of Canadians buy separate private policies to cover prescription drugs, dental and vision care, private rooms in hospitals and other benefits not provided by the universal public plan, according to The Commonwealth Fund, a left-leaning think tank.

In Denmark, which has a national health care system, nearly 40% purchase plans to lower their out-of-pocket costs and to cover benefits such as physiotherapy, and just over a quarter have supplemental coverage to give them access to private providers, according to the fund.