Does Warren have plan for Medicare-for-All questions?

Health plan cost and tax details threaten her momentum

ELIZABETH WARREN is riding high, polling ahead of Joe Biden in early voting Iowa and New Hampshire, and closing the gap in national polls. But that surge has come with a downside — the front-runner bullseye now firmly on her back. In this week’s Democratic presidential debate, most of the arrows fired her way had to do health care, as more moderate rivals pummeled her evasions as Warren refused to answer whether taxes for middle-class Americans would go up under the Medicare-for-All proposal she supports.

Pete Buttigieg said afterwards that Warren has been “more specific and forthcoming about the number of selfies she’s taken than about how this plan is going to be funded.”

Ouch.

“I will not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle-class families,” Warren said in Tuesday’s debate, steadfastly refusing to hand Republicans a video clip admitting that taxes will rise, a moment that would surely become the centerpiece of a prominent ad attacking her in a general election showdown.

Warren’s position is that overall health care costs for middle-class families, which currently include premiums, co-pays, deductibles, and non-reimbursed out-of-pocket expenses, would go down under a single-payer plan. That almost certainly means higher taxes for many, but supporters say average Americans will nonetheless come out ahead.

Try packaging that into a snappy sound bite and it becomes clear why, on this issue, Warren is not exactly riding the Straight Talk Express.

And good for her, say some.

“While some pundits may be frustrated that she’s not repeating insurance industry talking points, Democratic voters who care about electability are very happy that she’s standing her ground and not giving Republicans rope to hang Democrats with,” Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told the Globe.

For an idea of how messy the details quickly get on a single-payer, check out WBUR’s admirable effort this week to flesh out how Medicare-for-All plans would affect four Massachusetts households.

Warren’s signature line on nearly every issue has become, “I’ve got a plan for that.” On health care, however, her approach actually been more, “Bernie’s got a plan for that — and I support it.”

Medicare-for-All is a cornerstone of her lefty rival Bernie Sanders’s campaign, and Warren and several other Democratic contenders have simply jumped on board. Lots of pundits have called that a serious error, as even Democratic voters appear split on the issue.

Democrats were able to flip the House in last year’s midterm election by pounding Republicans for their effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Medicare-for-All has put Democrats on the defensive over an issue on which they were winning.

The irony for Warren, writes The New Yorker’s John Cassidy, is that the hyper issue-focused candidate started the year treating her support of Medicare-for-All more “as a statement about aspirations rather than a commitment to the particulars of the Sanders plan.” The goal, she said, is affordable health care for all Americans. There are “different ways we can get there,” Warren said in a January interview.

The problem is she has now hitched her wagon to one very specific way to get there, and the questions about how it would work and what it would cost are not likely to go away.

Cassidy says Warren needs to flesh out those details, or go back to her embrace of the idea as part of a broad long-term aspiration, not a detailed plan.

Local pundit Mary Ann Marsh tells the Globe Warren’s support for Medicare-for-All is a smart way to win progressive support and that she’ll have room to moderate her stance if she wins the nomination.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Cassidy thinks we’ll get some of that pivot sooner, especially as the issue threatens to crowd out things like Wall Street regulation or a wealth tax, which poll much better and for which Warren actually has developed the plans she’s promoting.

“Her ill-defined association with Sanders’s Medicare for All proposal risks obscuring the rest of her program,” he writes. “I would expect her to clarify it, and soon.