Democrat Harris clarifies: she won't ban private health insurance

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris was forced to clarify her position on private health insurance again on Friday, an unwelcome distraction from a standout debate performance that her campaign said drew a surge of financial contributions.

Senator Kamala Harris is interviewed by MSNBC host Chris Matthews in the "spin room" after the conclusion of the second night of the first U.S. 2020 presidential election Democratic candidates debate in Miami, Florida, U.S., June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Harris and U.S. Senate colleague Bernie Sanders were the only two candidates to raise their hands during Thursday night’s second Democratic debate when asked, “Who here would abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan?”

However, Harris told reporters afterwards she interpreted the question as referring to a personal choice and said she did not support eliminating private insurance completely.

“The question was would you give up YOUR private insurance for that option and I said yes,” the senator from California said in an interview with MSNBC on Friday.

“I am a proponent of Medicare for All. Private insurance will exist for supplemental coverage,” she added.

Sanders, of Vermont, issued a statement Friday taking a veiled shot at Harris, saying all candidates need to be clear about their stance on Medicare for All.

““That means boldly transforming our dysfunctional system by ending the use of private health insurance, except to cover non-essential care like cosmetic surgeries,” Sanders said.

Harris dominated her nine Democratic rivals on Thursday night’s debate stage in Miami, confronting front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden on race and calling his remarks about working with segregationist senators hurtful.

Campaign spokeswoman Lily Adams said the debate marked the best fundraising day since Harris launched her campaign at a January rally in Oakland, California. Harris, a former California attorney general, also drew endorsements in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, as well as in her home state, her campaign said.

Democrats see healthcare as central to their efforts to win back the White House and build on gains in congressional races in 2020 after Republican President Donald Trump chipped away at Democratic predecessor Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.

It was not the first time Harris has had to clarify her position on private health insurance. At a town hall in January, she said she would be willing to eliminate private health insurance.

Harris later told CNN she was referring to the wasteful bureaucracy of Medicare, not the insurance industry, and her campaign said she would be open to more moderate approaches.

Her campaign dismissed criticism that Harris had muddled the issue again. “I don’t think anyone is unclear,” Adams said. “I think she’s been very clear today, as she’s been asked about it. She’s been very clear on the (campaign) trail.”

Like the 10 candidates in the first Democratic debate on Wednesday night, the contenders on Thursday disagreed over the best way to boost access to healthcare insurance coverage. On Wednesday night, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio were the only two candidates to raise their hands when asked if they would scrap private insurance.

Harris has backed Sanders’ Medicare-For-All bill, which would largely eliminate private insurance and shift all Americans into a government-run healthcare plan that Republicans have criticized as too costly.

The bill has 14 Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate, including four of his presidential rivals: Harris, Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey. The other White House contender in the Senate, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, supports universal healthcare and expanding Medicare but has not committed to plans that would eliminate private insurance.

Trump and his supporters have labeled the Democrats who support Medicare for All as radical socialists who would take away Americans’ healthcare choices.

Traveling in Asia for a G20 summit, Trump knocked the Democratic presidential hopefuls on Thursday for pledging to cover healthcare for immigrants who live in the United States after coming to the country illegally.

“All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare. How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race!” he wrote on Twitter.

Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Jarrett Renshaw contributed to reporting; Editing by Susan Thomas and Jonathan Oatis