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Government

Four Democratic candidates vow to keep Social Security solvent during AARP forum in Des Moines

Booker, Hickenlooper, Klobuchar, Biden attend first of five forums this week focusing on older Americans

New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker speaks Monday, July 15, 2019, in Des Moines during the first of a series of presidential candidate forums around the state sponsored by AARP and the Des Moines Register. (Pool photo by Des Moines Register)
New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker speaks Monday, July 15, 2019, in Des Moines during the first of a series of presidential candidate forums around the state sponsored by AARP and the Des Moines Register. (Pool photo by Des Moines Register)
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DES MOINES — Four Democrats running for president pledged Monday to keep Social Security solvent for senior citizens by raising the income cap so wealthier Americans pay more taxes to support the system without changing eligibility requirements.

The 2020 hopefuls who participated in a forum sponsored by AARP Iowa and the Des Moines Register also supported adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act to expand coverage to more Americans but three balked at eliminating private insurance for those who prefer to keep their current health care coverage.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar also promised to pursue ways to force pharmaceutical companies to lower the prices of prescription drugs or come up with wages for consumers to strengthen their bargaining power in controlling a key area of health care costs.

“Health care should be a right,” Booker told the forum, which will feature more Democratic candidates at different venues at four locations throughout the week, including Cedar Rapids on Wednesday.

“If I am your president, on Day One I’m going to start doing things to repair the damage done to the Affordable Care Act from this president who has been going after it, and I’m going to make sure that we start the march toward getting more people access and driving down costs and that’s what American’s want.”

Biden began the week by unveiling a health plan that seeks to preserve the ACA’s most popular parts, like protecting patients with preexisting conditions, expanding Medicaid protections and keeping young people on their parents’ coverage, while building on them with a new government-run public insurance option.

The former vice president’s approach also would empower Medicare to negotiate drug prices directly, allow the importation of prescription drugs from abroad and extend tax credits to help tens of millions of Americans buy lower-priced health insurance.

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Biden told forum attendees his plan will cost $750 billion over a decade — not $3 trillion like some Medicare for All approaches — and would be paid for by reversing some of the Trump administration’s tax cuts while preserving private insurance for those who preferred that over a public option.

“I think it’s the quickest and most reasonable, rational and best way to get to universal care,” said Biden. He noted he did not want to criticize his Democratic opponents, but he worried about plans that potentially could affect “roughly 300 million people in one fell swoop” could pose a “risky” transition that could produce “a bumpy ride.”

Asked if Biden’s plan sounded familiar, Klobuchar responded, “you mean because it’s mine,” noting she has proposed immediately put in a public option proposal to Congress and that could be for Medicaid or Medicare as a way to achieve the goal of universal health care coverage. She said she wanted to “build on” the Affordable Care Act rather than calling for an immediate transition to Medicare-for-all that could dismantle the current health system.

“It would concern me to kick half of America off of their insurance in four years, which is what the other plan specifically says,” Klobuchar told the forum. “I think we’re always going to have some private insurance as part of the American health care system, but I do think that costs are too high.”

Booker — one of several 2020 contenders co-sponsoring the Medicare for All bill introduced by Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a presidential candidate, that would expand government-run health coverage and shrink private health insurance — said he did not want to “quibble” with Biden over what he viewed as varying plan labels for the ultimate goal of ensuring all Americans have health care.

“I don’t think it’s likely that we’re going to have a massive transformation of our system,” said Booker, who supported lower the age to 55 for Medicare eligibility.

“My driving value is getting to the point where every American is covered with a high quality of care,” Booker added. “I will not let perfect be the enemy of good at a time when so many struggling Americans when it comes to their prescription drug costs and it comes to their health care desperately need more good. That’s why I’m keeping all options on the table.”

Hickenlooper said President Donald Trump — whom he called “a master at division” — and Republicans already are trying to paint Democrats as socialists pushing big-government solutions, prompting him to call for drawing a “clear line” against solutions that call for massive government expansion.

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“A public option, if it’s done properly, allows people the choice to migrate to that public option,” he said. “As it grows in size, more people will migrate, cost will come down and quality will improve. Ultimately, you could end up with a Medicare-for-all type solution but it would be an evolution, not a revolution and would take maybe 10 or 15 years. That type of approach is better.”

Hickenlooper said he would not support raising the age requirements for Social Security or Medicare and joined his three Democratic colleagues in seeking to raise the cap — but not eliminate it — on income levels so wealthy Americans pay a “fairer share” of the cost for keeping the system solvent as a safety net for seniors. At least two candidates supported creating a “doughnut hole” above the $133,000 yearly income cap whereby additional taxation would kick in at the $250,000 or $400,000 levels.

Preya Samsundar, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, issued a statement Monday saying poll numbers indicate a majority of swing-state voters view “socialist” policies being embraced by Democratic presidential candidate as unpopular and “toxic.”

“Speaking in a friendly, invite-only setting, 2020 Democrats will have no problem sharing their socialist views with their supporters. While Iowans continue to benefit from the president’s policies that have created growth and opportunity, Democrats will champion policies this week that will roll them back,” Samsundar said.

• Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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