WaPo fact check: No Pinocchios for dubious Harris claim to not oppose private health insurance?

None at all? Not even after Kamala Harris made it clear that she wanted to “eliminate all of that” insurance entanglements with Medicare for All back in January? Ever since then, Harris has sung a different tune, which CNN’s Jake Tapper called out on Sunday’s State of the Union program. Now Harris says she only wanted to get rid of “the bureaucracy” … but she tells Tapper that she also supports the Bernie Sanders version of Medicare for All.

Tapper’s a bit confused on what exactly Harris wants, and that’s not Tapper’s fault, as even Glenn Kessler acknowledges. Harris is talking out of both sides of her mouth:

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CALIF.): I support the bill [Medicare-for-all].


HARRIS: I support the bill. I…

TAPPER: Well, because the bill gets rid of private insurance for everything that…

HARRIS: It doesn’t get rid of supplemental insurance for…

TAPPER: Right, for cosmetic surgery, but for all…

HARRIS: So, it doesn’t get rid of all insurance.

TAPPER: OK. It doesn’t get rid of all insurance.

HARRIS: OK. Right.

TAPPER: … but for all essential health care benefits.

Kessler calls this “one of those inside-the-Beltway exchanges that probably leaves many Americans scratching their heads,” but it’s not really all that unclear. It starts with Harris being entirely dishonest about what she said in January. It’s true that she was talking about bureaucracy, but Harris was specifically talking about bureaucracy within insurance companies. Here’s the quote:

TAPPER: Just to follow up on that, correct me if I’m wrong. To reiterate: You support the Medicare for All bill, I think initially co-sponsored by Bernie Sanders, you’re also a co-sponsor.


TAPPER: I believe it will totally eliminate private insurance. So for people out there who like their insurance — they don’t get to keep it?

HARRIS: Well, listen, 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. Who of us has not had that situation where you’ve got to wait for approval, and the doctor says, “Well, I don’t know if your insurance company is going to cover this”? Let’s eliminate all of that. Let’s move on.

“Let’s eliminate all that” is specifically tied to the insurance companies. Put aside for the moment the irony of arguing to eliminate bureaucracy by putting government in charge of those decisions, and just focus on the point Harris was making. It specifically blamed insurers for red tape and argued that the bill was the best way to eliminate them from the equation. It’s not as though Harris is arguing for a “public option” in ObamaCare; she’s sponsoring a bill whose effect will be to prohibit private health insurance as the means to “move on.”

Her attempt to backtrack here should be worth a couple of Pinocchios on its own. Instead, Kessler gets caught up in the question of whether the Sanders bill would eliminate private health insurance altogether. Curiously, that’s what Kessler thinks the bill will effectively do too:

So what is Harris referring to? A few lines in the bill.

Section 107 would make it illegal for any private health insurer to sell coverage that duplicated benefits under the law or for any employer to duplicate the benefits, but adds that nothing on the proposed law would prohibit the sale of health insurance for benefits not covered under the bill.

Okay, but the bill proposes to cover just about everything. Hospital services. Primary and preventive care. Prescription drugs and medical devices. Mental health care. Lab work. Pediatrics. Dentistry. Hearing and vision care. Rehab. Emergency services. Even long-term care.

Currently, people on Medicare can buy Medigap insurance, which covers co-payments and deductibles. But the Sanders bill would eliminate the need for that, too, as Section 202 decrees “no cost-sharing.”

That sounds pretty definitive; Medicare for All would necessarily and deliberately prohibit private health insurance. Even the caveat offered to Kessler from Sanders’ office has holes in it. The Kaiser Foundation confirms it:

“You are correct that the benefits package is extremely generous; private insurance would not be needed at all because everything that is medically necessary for any given individual would be covered under Medicare-for-all,” said a Sanders aide. But she added: “Under Medicare-for-all, private insurance could continue to exist to cover anything not covered by Medicare, such as private hospital rooms, institutional long-term care and voluntary care.” (Institutional long-term care, such as nursing homes, under the Sanders bill would continue to be covered under Medicaid, the health program for the poor.)

“As a technical matter, the Medicare-for-all bill would allow private insurers to sell supplemental policies for benefits not covered by the government plan,” said Larry Levitt, senior vice president for health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “As a practical matter, the government plan covers such a comprehensive set of benefits that there would be virtually no role for private insurance.”

That also sounds pretty definitive. Medicare for All will eliminate private insurance, Kamala Harris supports Medicare for All, and she clearly mischaracterized her remarks in January to avoid admitting it. Isn’t that four-Pinocchio territory?  Even though Kessler acknowledges the reality of Medicare for All’s destruction of private insurance — noting that it goes farther than either the British or Canadian systems in doing so — Harris gets no Pinocchios at all:

Given the back-and-forth between Harris and Tapper, we can’t quite award Pinocchios. But her language is slippery. She could more forthrightly admit that the health plan she supports envisions virtually no role for the private insurance now used by nearly 220 million Americans.

That gives Harris far too much credit for slipperiness. Harris deliberately misrepresented her argument from January and then deliberately mischaracterized the bill she co-sponsored even while Tapper was clearly confronting her with its reality. Harris is claiming not to oppose private insurance while co-sponsoring a bill that would kill it. Glenn Kessler’s normally the best in class when it comes to media fact checks, and he’s not been afraid to stick Pinocchios to politicians of both parties, but he really missed the mark here.