SIOUX CITY — Four Democratic presidential candidates vowed Friday to drastically change the health care insurance system, increase pressure on big pharmaceutical companies to lower medicine prices and raise the amount of payroll taxes paid by higher-earning Americans.
The AARP forum in Sioux City, which attracted about 200 people, featured Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, New York businessman Andrew Yang and author-speaker Marianne Williamson, who’s moved to Iowa.
As in the past three forums around the state, there was general agreement among the Democratic candidates about the health care system being tilted to benefit the profits of Big Pharma and health care conglomerates, and on the solutions, but there were some differences.
Williamson, Warren and Yang all supported “Medicare for all,” a hot topic in recent days that’s been widely embraced in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. As first pitched by Sen. Bernie Sanders, another presidential hopeful, all people would be allowed to access the federal Medicare insurance program, which now is for those age 65 and older.
O’Rourke was the sole forum candidate to not go so far as Medicare for all, citing his plan called Medicare for Americans, in which all people and businesses would have the choice to enroll in Medicare without eliminating private insurance. Those who like their private health insurance could keep it, said O’Rourke.
The Democrats are running to oust Republican President Donald Trump. One of the few direct references to Trump came in the final comment of the day, when Yang cited himself, to big laughs, as “the opposite” of Trump, “an Asian man who likes math.”
The five forums, also organized by the Des Moines Register, are being held from Monday through Saturday in cities in Iowa, site of the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses on Feb. 3. Twenty Democratic presidential candidates agreed to participate, with four in each event.
Michelle Kuhlmann of Sioux City had not before seen any of the four candidates in person.
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She said there have been many years of politicians discussing the need to financially shore up Social Security and bring down medicine prices. She’s cautiously optimistic traction is at hand.
“I am hopeful because a lot of people are realizing how much drug companies are making,” she said.
Warren, Williamson and Yang all agreed one way to get lower drug prices is for the government to begin manufacturing certain medicines if private firms aren’t producing cheaper generic-style drugs.
O’Rourke didn’t embrace that possibility as enthusiastically as the other three, saying, “It may be an option.”
Warren said strong action, such as allowing the importation of medicines made in other countries, should be pursued, to stem what she said is the relative free rein Big Pharma enjoys once they get patents to produce drugs.
“It is because the drug companies are paying the pipers in Washington, and they are calling the tunes,” said Warren.
Added Williamson: “We have two Big Pharma lobbyists for every member of Congress.”
To ensure the viability of the Social Security program to continue paying retirement and other benefits, all four candidates said they would increase the payroll tax cap on incomes over $132,900, which is where it now stops.
Williamson said people routinely cite the need for patriotism and “that includes economic patriotism,” where higher earners need to pay more of their incomes toward Social Security.
Yang said reports have shown half of Americans won’t have enough money to comfortably retire.
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“We are entering an age where being old and poor will be the norm in this country,” Yang said.
The four candidates also agreed on the need for the federal government to help boost rural broadband technology access and to get rid of a state-by-state system of deciding whether to allow medical marijuana as a means to relieve pain.
O’Rourke said some people with debilitating pain from long-standing health conditions would rather use medical marijuana than opioids, since those have resulted in addiction.