Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is the only Democratic presidential candidate who has been forthcoming about the costs and ramifications of “Medicare for All,” Joe Biden told reporters Friday.
The comments by the former vice president, after a stop for ice cream while campaigning in New Hampshire, were an implicit shot at Sen. Kamala Harris of California and other 2020 rivals, and the most direct Biden has been in his criticism of their support for Medicare for All.
“Bernie’s been very honest about it. He said you’re going to have to raise taxes on the middle class. He said it’s going to end all private insurance. I mean, he’s been straightforward about it. And he’s making his case,” Biden said.
He was asked if other Democrats are doing so, as well.
“Well, so far, not. So far, not. They may,” Biden said.
Among the Democratic 2020 front-runners, Biden is the only opponent of moving to a single-payer health plan in which all Americans would be enrolled in a government-run program like Medicare, paying higher taxes instead of health care premiums, deductibles and copays.
Sanders has long advocated such a plan, and in the first Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts offered her most full-throated endorsement yet of Medicare for All.
Several other Democratic candidates, including Warren, Harris and Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, co-sponsored Sanders’ 2017 Medicare for All bill and have endorsed the policy as they seek the presidential nomination.
Biden on Friday said he had “pretty profound differences” with Sanders and Harris on health care. Instead of Medicare for All, Biden said, he would prefer to keep former President Barack Obama’s signature health care plan in place and expand it by giving Americans the option to buy into a program like Medicare, while retaining private insurance for those who want it.
Asked by CNN if Harris has been forthcoming enough about her ideas to end private insurance, Biden said: “I’ll let you guys make that judgment.”
Biden called single-payer health plans “hard to explain” to voters worried about what drastic changes to their insurance would mean.
When asked whether Democrats can win the White House with a nominee who advocates Medicare for All, Biden paused for a moment, finally saying: “The answer is, I think what the American people are looking for is something that gives than surety.”
“I’m not saying that people will necessarily vote against it,” he said. “Thus far, I think it gets hard to explain it and indicate how you’re going to be OK; there’s going to be nothing missing, as my mother would say, between the cup and the lip.”
Harris backs Medicare for All, but has emphasized that under her plan, private insurance would continue to exist as a supplemental option. She had raised her hand on the Democratic debate stage when candidates were asked if they would eliminate private insurance – but later said she had misheard the question.
Progressive activists and some Medicare for All supporters, frustrated by comments they see as hedging out of fear of the political repercussions of implementing a single-payer plan, have pushed candidates to be more clear that they would end private insurers’ current role in the health care system.
In a veiled swipe at Harris, Sanders said in late June: “Let us all be very clear about this. If you support Medicare for All, you have to be willing to end the greed of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries. That means boldly transforming our dysfunctional system by ending the use of private health insurance, except to cover nonessential care like cosmetic surgeries.”
Harris aides responded by saying she agreed with Sanders.
Biden said at an earlier event in New Hampshire on Friday that Democrats who back Medicare for All “mean well.”
But, he said, “I don’t want to start over. How many of you out there have had someone you’ve lost to cancer? Or cancer yourself? No time, man. We cannot have a hiatus of six months, a year, two, three, to get something done.”
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, Sarah Mucha and Jasmine Wright contributed to this report.