Capitol Alert

Fact check: Does Kamala Harris’ healthcare plan ban employer insurance?

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet claimed at the Democratic debate Wednesday night that Sen. Kamala Harris intends to ban employer-based health insurance.

Harris argued that her healthcare proposal, unveiled earlier this week, wouldn’t make anything “illegal.” That is true, but it would ultimately eliminate the way most Americans currently get their health insurance: through their employer.

Harris tacitly acknowledged as much, telling Bennet, “It’s time that we separate work from healthcare.”

The role of private insurance has become a flashpoint in the 2020 Democratic primary ever since Harris was asked about the issue back at a CNN town hall in January.

Anchor Jake Tapper asked then if Harris’ support for Medicare for All meant that “for people out there who like their insurance, they don’t get to keep it?”

“The idea is that everyone gets access to medical care, and you don’t have to go through the process of going through an insurance company, having them give you approval, going through the paperwork, all of the delay that may require,” she said.

Earlier this week, however, the Harris campaign rolled out a new healthcare proposal that would allow private insurers to participate in a Medicare for All system, along the lines of the Medicare Advantage program, which currently covers about a third of seniors on Medicare.

Insurers will have to “adhere to strict Medicare requirements on costs and benefits,” Harris wrote in a post on the web site Medium published Monday. “Unlike the current system, private plans in the new Medicare system will be held to stricter consumer protection standards than they are today, such as getting reimbursed less than what the Medicare plan will cost to operate, to ensure that they are delivering meaningful value.”

“I think what Sen. Harris’ proposal is attempting to do is respond to the concern that many Americans have expressed in polling on this issue,” said Prof. Gerald Kominski, a senior fellow in the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. “When asked specifically, ‘do you want a program where there will be no private insurance?’ a lot of people are concerned.”

Professer Paul B. Ginsburg, director of the University of Southern California-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy, noted that the Medicare Advantage program, which allows private insurers to offer Medicare plans, is one of the fastest growing segments of Medicare. “It is very popular,” said Ginsburg.

Harris’ proposal would, however, eliminate the employer-sponsored health insurance that many Americans currently rely on. Despite criticism, a recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than three-quarters of the public have a favorable view of employer-sponsored health coverage.

For many people with employment-based plans, Harris’ proposal “would offer more options,” said Kominski. But “does it mean that every current health insurance plan would still be in business? Perhaps not.”

That is not as extreme as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All legislation, which would eliminate private insurance, entirely.

He and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren defended that vision during Tuesday night’s Democratic primary debate in Detroit, blaming private insurers’ drive for profits for the dysfunction of the current system.

“We have tried the solution of Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance. And what have the private insurance companies done?” asked Warren. “They’ve sucked billions of dollars out of our health care system.”

In an email blast earlier this week, Sanders’ presidential campaign warned that Harris’ proposal would amount to “privatizing Medicare,” while “enriching insurance executives and introducing more corporate greed and profiteering into the Medicare system.”

But Ginsburg said that the insurance companies would still “come out losers” under Harris’ plan, because they would no longer dominate the market the way they have under the employer-sponsored insurance system.

He acknowledged that private insurers are “doing very well, in fact they’re doing better than they should” in the existing Medicare Advantage system. But Harris says she would address that by establishing stricter coverage requirements and lowering reimbursement rates. She has not elaborated on how, exactly, she would do so.

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.