Sanders Wins Healthcare Debate, Shows GOP Has No Plan

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The CNN event was described by some as a 2016 presidential debate from an alternate universe, one where U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) won the Democratic nomination and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) earned the GOP nod. In our universe, these two men were the runners-up from their respective parties, generating unprecedented teeth-gnashing given that Hillary Clinton (D) and Donald Trump (R) were the most unpopular presidential nominees of the modern era.  Viewers tuned in hoping to see more aggression from the liberal and more facts from the conservative.

By most accounts, the debate delivered the goods on the topic of healthcare:  Sanders brought populist passion, and former Princeton debate champ Cruz brought the data.  Neither man had changed his mind one iota since the presidential primaries, when Sanders was pushing for full single-payer healthcare, and Cruz was arguing to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.  And both, to the appeal of their respective supporters, did a better job on the stump than either Clinton or Trump would have.

But Sanders won easily because his facts were better facts.  Cruz delivered some facts, but spent more time waxing eloquent on non-quantitative concepts like “choice,” “free market,” and the alleged evils of “socialism.” Frankly, Cruz should get some credit for valiantly defending a horribly flawed premise.  It’s simply not possible to win by saying that privatized healthcare is better for the macro economy than single-payer.

Bernie Sanders hit hard with the fact that the United States is the only first-world, industrialized nation that does not provide universal healthcare. With that fact stated, Cruz and his supporters must try to argue that the rest of the first world is wrong and that we are right. Despite America being truly exceptional, it is hard to argue that all of our peers are wrong. Maybe if our healthcare statistics were good… but they’re not. We spend more money on our privatized healthcare but have less to show for it compared to other industrialized states. It’s as simple as that.

Public support is on Sanders’ side, which gave him a second haymaker to lob. Most Americans support the majority of the Affordable Care Act’s provisions, denying Cruz’s assertion that the law has enraged the masses. The majority of citizens, in fact, support Sanders’ goal of full single-payer healthcare in the United States- including a strong 41 percent of Republicans and right-leaning independents. This means that Ted Cruz’s pro-privatization position is backed by only a minority of voters. 

With the numbers on Sanders’ side, Cruz had to deliver a masterful performance- and he just didn’t do it. CNN fact checkers labeled as false more of his key points than Sanders’ points, making it hard for Cruz’s allies in Congress to make any ground in future healthcare stump speeches. The Princeton alum may be a smooth talker, but today’s world of real-time fact checking is not his friend.                              

Cruz did gain a bit of ground by focusing on the many Americans who cannot afford their health insurance premiums under Obamacare, but he flubbed his case when he admitted that insurance profits nearly doubled from 2008 to 2015. The problem, Cruz inadvertently reveals, is not solely due to government regulation. Rather, profit-seeking companies are raising their rates to maximize profit.  Removing government regulations and returning American healthcare entirely to the private sector will do nothing to prevent health insurers and medical providers from seeking maximum profit. 

Arguing that healthcare prices will fall due to free market competition, Cruz ignores the fact that the healthcare market is more of an oligopoly than a monopolistically competitive market. Consumers cannot easily research the best prices and deals, nor can they easily switch from producer to producer.  The healthcare industry lacks transparency, and patients are often surprised by outrageous bills and charges of which they were never warned. It is akin to a restaurant sending you several additional and unexpected bills after you have already paid for, and eaten, your meal!  Not paying, of course, results in damage to your credit score and hounding by debt collectors.

Given how much power medical providers have even under Obamacare, it is scary to think of how much worse they will be after regulations are removed.  If they can hit you with unexplained fees after your medical procedure is completed, then there is no real competition.  Free market competition only exists if you can reasonably determine actual price and good/service quality before paying.

Sanders’ winningest argument comes from hit knock on these outrageous, and occasionally unethical, prices:  Access to healthcare does not mean much if you cannot afford it.  Under Cruz’s “free market” privatization, the sky is the limit in terms of access. If you have the cash, you can get the medical care- but without any government oversight. But fewer Americans will be able to afford that access, or at least afford the unexpected bills that came after they accessed. 

Texas’ more outspoken Senator fought a valiant battle, but did not adequately explain how abolishing the Affordable Care Act would improve healthcare for most Americans. With the international data backing Sanders’ proposal of single payer healthcare, Cruz falls flat.  He may have the gift of gab, but he’s on the wrong side of history.

With Republicans growing ever more nervous about actually abolishing Obamacare, you can count on the Sanders/Cruz debate to reinvigorate an anxious public.  If the ACA is repealed, nostalgia for Obamacare and fear of falling through the cracks of privatized medicine will almost certainly boost support for Bernie Sanders, who remains the Democrats’ most prominent healthcare advocate.  And, as anger at the Trump administration grows following Obamacare’s removal, look for Ted Cruz to also see his own star rise as the GOP shops for a potential 2020 alternative. 

If the duo should ever meet again in a presidential debate, my money’s on Sanders to notch a second win.

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