WASHINGTON (CN) – Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz – two of the country’s most diametrically opposed senators – hit the debate floor Tuesday night to spar over efforts to repeal the federal health care law.
During his unsuccessful presidential campaign last year, Sanders had been vocal about the faults of Obamacare, officially called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Sharing the George Washington University stage with Cruz, however, the Independent senator from Vermont tempered his attack.
While acknowledging some policy benefits of the act Republicans have sworn to repeal, Sanders pushed a single-payer federally backed health care system as an ideal replacement.
The program Sanders described as “Medicare for All” would provide Americans with total health coverage, including visits to the doctor, hospital stays, and medical and dental coverage. Like he described during his presidential campaign, such a program would be funded by increasing taxes on the wealthy.
Cruz had also come out strong against Obamacare during his unsuccessful turn in the Republican presidential primary last year. The Texan’s attitude was little changed during the CNN-sponsored debate.
Disinterested in the government expansion that Sanders’ plan would bring, Cruz focused on the ACA’s shortcomings and equated smaller government to more or better choice.
“We see the results of Obamacare,” he said. “They said if you like your plan, you can keep your plan. [President Barack] Obama said that 37 times. That wasn’t true. If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. That wasn’t true.”
Cruz quoted the last administration as promising the average family that their premium would drop by $2,500.
“But not only was that not true, premiums have risen $2,500,” Cruz said, adding that the combined effect has been to drive up the cost of health care and reduce consumer freedom.
Often agreeing with his Republican counterpart, Sanders conceded that premiums attached to ACA weren’t so affordable after all. But the men diverged almost as quickly as they came together.
“The last election was a referendum on Obamacare and quite frankly people decided they did not want it,” Cruz said.
Sanders saw it differently. “The truth is Republicans are now in a panic because the American people have caught on that the absolute repeal of Obamacare without improvements isn’t about giving people a choice,” he argued.
Taking a dim view of the Republicans’ efforts, Sanders said the choice they are offering is nonexistent. “You’ve got cancer, so go you to your doctor, and then the insurance company says we’re not going to cover it,” he said. “That’s your choice. We’re not going to make money on it, so you die of cancer.”
Sanders asked listeners to take a walk down memory lane.
“Does [ACA] need to improve,” Sanders asked. “Of course. But let us remember where we came from. Before ACA if you were a family of four, your premiums doubled. Under eight years of [President George W.] Bush. So it’s not just in America today that health care costs are going up. They went up much higher before we had ACA.”
Sanders emphasized that single-payer care is very prevalent internationally and that the United States should have it too. “Ted thinks [it is] a terrible government intrusion; I think that it’s the right and moral thing to do,” Sanders quipped.
Cruz countered that America would be trading medical care that he called the “best in the world” for a “rationing system” used by single payer-based countries.
“Millions of people stay on waiting lists, and that means [these countries] ration,” Cruz said. “They decide whether you do get care or you don’t. Just like Obamacare, it equals more control.”
Sanders shot back that the nation already employs “enormous rationing.”
“When you have millions without health insurance, that’s rationing,” he said. “When people can’t afford to go to a doctor or get prescription drugs, that’s rationing. Except there’s no rule on that. It’s just that people don’t have the money to buy what they need in terms of health care.”
The Vermonter also noted that a public option for the sheer sake of getting more people the health care they need could even be considered in line with Cruz and the GOP’s wishes to avoid “big government.”
“There should be a Medicare-type, public option available in all exchanges, in all states,” Sanders said. “And that would lower the cost of health care in this country and provide real competition to the private sector.”
The two senators did find common ground in blasting “the greed” of the pharmaceutical industry. Sanders asked Cruz to support legislation forcing Medicare to negotiate drug prices within the industry.
“I would love for us to work together in going after Big Pharma,” Cruz conceded.