Trio of Democrats disagrees on health care coverage at AARP forum in Cedar Rapids

But the presidential hopefuls back drug price negotiations

CEDAR RAPIDS — Democratic presidential candidates pitched their plans to older Iowans Wednesday, promising to negotiate for better prescription drug prices and raise or eliminate the payroll tax cap for Social Security.

And while they all supported some form of universal health care, the three 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who participated in this AARP/Des Moines Register forum in Cedar Rapids differed on how best to provide that.

Medicare-for-all, said Hawaii U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, “is about making sure that every single person in need of care is able to get that care regardless of how much money you make or how little money you make or what preexisting (condition) you have.”

Former Maryland U.S. Rep. John Delaney and Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who also participated in the forum hosted by AARP and the Des Moines Register, told an invitation-only audience of Iowa seniors at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center that plan is unaffordable and unsustainable — and that a candidate who runs on Medicare-for-all will be unelectable.

Delaney said that if Democrats tell more than 150 million Americans with private health insurance it’s going to be made illegal “and they’re going to have to get some new government program, they’re not going to trust us and they’re not going to vote for us (because) they won’t believe it’s better than what they have.”

Bennet called for a “true public option” to serve the millions of people who make too much income to be on Medicaid but still can’t afford private health insurance.

His plans would not be the same as Medicare, but would be administered by Medicare “so we allow everybody in American to decide for their family whether they want a public option or they want to hold on to the employee insurance they have.”


Under Medicare-for-all, he said, 120,000 Iowans with Medicare Advantage and unions that negotiate their health insurance would lose their plans.

“And they’re Democrats,” he later told reporters.

Twenty candidates agreed to participate in the AARP forums around the state, in large part because Americans 50 and older are the most powerful voting bloc, according to AARP. In 2016 and 2018 they not only were the largest bloc by age, but they were the majority of voters.

Following the 2018 election, AARP commissioned a poll that found for 50-plus voters, Social Security (83 percent), Medicare and health care (both 79 percent) were their top issues.

The Republican National Committee suggested the candidates were pandering to seniors as they asked for a second chance to “right their wrongs” — high premiums “and even higher deductibles” that accompanied the Affordable Care Act.

But their plans would make the situation much worse, spokeswoman Preya Samsundar said.

“With plans to have the government take over health care, force a massive expansion that includes providing free care for illegal immigrants, and a desire to eliminate private health insurance, Democrats will force Iowa seniors to compete with millions of citizens and noncitizens for limited care leading to longer wait times,” she said.

The trio of candidates agreed on putting Social Security funds in a “lockbox” so no members of Congress or federal agency, as Gabbard said, “can tap into and raid the Social Security fund.”

“I think that the best thing we can do is lift the cap on the payroll tax,” said Bennet. That would protect Social Security for current recipients as well as give younger Americans hope it will be there when they retire.

Delaney agreed with the others that lifting or eliminating the cap should be considered.

This year, earnings up to $132,900 are taxed to fund the Social Security program. The cap is adjusted each year based on a national wage average. Raising or eliminating the income cap, which would raise more money for the program, could narrow or erase a projected $13 trillion shortfall between 2034 and 2092. The cap exists now because benefits also are capped, currently at $2,788 a month.


They also agreed that allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices would lower the cost for people in the program as well as others.

“It’s ridiculous,” Delaney said, that Medicare, the largest purchaser of prescription drugs in the world, can’t negotiate prescription drug prices.

“Pharmaceutical companies have been making exorbitant profits on the backs of people who depend on that medicine, oftentimes just to stay alive,” Gabbard said. “The fact that they are gaming the patent system to block generic drugs ... is exactly why we need to crack down on big pharma.”

In addition to negotiating those prices, Delaney called for a 100 percent excise tax on the difference between the price here and in other countries. People in other developed counties pay a quarter to a third what Americans pay for prescription drugs, meaning Americans subsidize the entire global pharmaceutical industry, he said.

Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan also was scheduled to participate but bowed out, organizers said.

The AARP forums will continue Friday in Sioux City Friday and Saturday in Council Bluffs.

They will be livestreamed online at

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