Is Warren retreating on Medicare-for-all?

'Combining the parts into a whole reveals a bit of a mess'

Almost one week before the fifth Democratic presidential debate, Elizabeth Warren released the latest plan in her slew of policy proposals: An outline detailing how, if elected, she would gradually shift the U.S. toward a single-payer health care system.

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“I have put out a plan to fully finance Medicare for All when it’s up and running without raising taxes on the middle class by one penny,” the Massachusetts senator wrote in a post introducing the plan. “But how do we get there? Every serious proposal for Medicare for All contemplates a significant transition period.”

It was a marked shift from her previous calls to quickly bring the country toward Medicare-for-all and, notably, included similar tenets laid out in the health care proposals of more moderate candidates, like former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

In the transition plan, Warren said she would take several steps in her first 100 days in office to expand insurance coverage, like pushing to pass a bill that would allow all Americans to either buy into a government-run program if they wanted, or keep their private insurance. It would extend free coverage to about half of the country, including children and poor families. She would also lower the eligibility age for Medicare to 50 and let young people buy into a “true Medicare-for-all” option.

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“Combining the parts into a whole reveals a bit of a mess,” wrote David Dayen of The American Prospect, a progressive magazine. “After putting forward a comprehensive cost control and financing bill, Warren split that apart and asked people to accept two bruising fights to get to her purported end goal. It’s reasonable for people to see that as a bait and switch.”

Rivals portrayed the move as a retreat from one of her most high-profile positions on an issue that voters repeatedly rank as one of the most important. A campaign spokesperson for Biden called the senator’s health stance “problematic,” while Buttigieg’s spokeswoman Lis Smith criticized the latest measure as a “transparently political attempt to paper over a very serious policy problem.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has wholeheartedly pledged to fight for a single-payer health system, took a swipe at Warren when accepting an endorsement on Friday from the largest nurses union in the country.

“Some people say we should delay that fight for a few more years — I don’t think so,” he said, according to The Washington Post. “We are ready to take them on right now, and we’re going to take them on Day One.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a town hall meeting at Grinnell College, Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, in Grinnell, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The similarities come as Warren, who experienced a somewhat momentous surge in the polls, has begun to falter. In early October, her national polling climbed to 28 percent, according to a Fox News poll, but since then, her numbers have steadily declined. In the latest Iowa poll, Buttigieg pulled ahead of Warren by a staggering nine percentage points, indicating the 37-year-old could be a serious contender.

The timing of the seeming loss of campaign momentum appears to be tied to the release of her sweeping Medicare-for-all proposal at the beginning of November. Warren said it could be paid for with a series of taxes, largely via new levies on Wall Street and the ultra-wealthy (and, she’s repeatedly stressed, none on the middle class).

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According to a recent poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Cook Political Report, while universal coverage is popular with a majority of Democratic voters, almost two-thirds of voters in key swing states said a national health plan in which all Americans receive their health coverage through a single-payer system was not a good idea.

It also precludes the start of the next debate in Georgia, during which Warren will very likely face fierce criticism and scrutiny over her $20 trillion Medicare-for-all plan.

Still, Warren told reporters over the weekend that “my commitment to Medicare for All is all the way,” according to The Associated Press.

And Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Washington Democrat who introduced the House version of the Medicare-for-all bill, called the plan a “smart approach to take on Big Pharma & private-for-profit insurance companies.”

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