On the trail: Sanders defends price tag on new plan to wipe out medical debt

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at the Peterborough Town House on Labor Day. Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • Democrat Tom Steyer meets with customers at Revelstoke Coffee in downtown Concord on Thursday. Paul Steinhauser—For the Monitor

  • Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) spoke to a crowd of at least 700 people at the Peterborough Town House on Monday, Labor Day, at a town hall/ice cream social with frozen treats provided by Ben and Jerry's. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) spoke to a crowd of at least 700 people at the Peterborough Town House on Monday, Labor Day, at a town hall/ice cream social with frozen treats provided by Ben and Jerry's. Staff photo by Ben Conant

For the Monitor
Published: 9/5/2019 4:58:51 PM

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders admits the price tag to cancel $81 billion in medical debt Americans currently owe is a lot of money, but he said it’s also “the right thing to do.”

The independent senator from Vermont sat down at the Barley House in Concord this week with the Monitor and NHTalkRadio.com as part of the “Pints and Politics” series. Sanders’s interview in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state came a few days after he first announced his plan to erase the nation’s unpaid medical debt.

“Five-hundred thousand people go bankrupt every year because of medical bills they cannot pay,” an animated Sanders said. “How disgusting. How outrageous is it ... I happen to believe that it is an outrage.”

The progressive and populist senator – a champion of a government-run Medicare-for-all health system – is making his second-straight bid for the White House.

Pointing to the plan’s estimated price tag, Sanders acknowledged that “$81 billion, that’s a lot of money. It is a lot of money.”

But the price tag should be viewed against other federal spending.

“Compared to what?” he said. “Compared to the $1.5 trillion that Trump gave in tax breaks to the 1% and large corporations? Compared to the billions of dollars that we spent bailing out the crooks on Wall Street for 11 years? It is a lot of money but I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Sanders – who’s already proposed canceling student loan debt – said there’s a big difference between wiping out medical debt and credit card debt.

“I don’t believe we wipe out credit card debt. You want to buy something, you pay for it,” he said. “If you want to go out and buy a fancy house, you want to go out and buy a yacht, and you go in debt, hey that’s your decision.”

“But I do believe we have to make a distinction. Getting cancer is not your decision. And I think we have a moral obligation to do everything we can to cancel that debt,” he added.

Sanders has said that under his plan, the federal government would negotiate to pay off past-due medical bills reported by credit agencies. And he would also propose repealing parts of the 2005 bankruptcy reform bill.

In Tuesday’s interview, Sanders once again refused to criticize Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, his fellow progressive standard-bearer among the record-setting field of Democratic White House hopefuls. The two senators from New England and longtime friends have kept the peace since launching their campaigns at the beginning of the year, even as they’re now basically tied for second place behind front-runner former vice president Joe Biden in the most recent polls in the race for the 2020 nomination.

Asked how he’ll contrast himself with Warren, Sanders quickly answered “I’m not going to talk about Sen. Warren.”

Warren “is more than capable of talking about her own campaign,” he added.

Asked a similar question Monday during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Warren offered a similar response.

“Bernie and I have been friends for many, many years, long before I ever got into politics, and I don’t see any reason that that should change,” she said.

In his interview, Sanders also said it’s “not enough” for the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee to just beat Republican President Donald Trump next year.

“I will do everything that I can to defeat Donald Trump,” Sanders said. “And Biden is right, that’s what we’ve got to do. But, here is the but, I think that’s not enough.”

Biden and his presidential campaign have repeatedly said the former vice president is the best candidate among the Democratic White House hopefuls to beat the incumbent Republican president in next year’s general election.

“You’ve got to beat Trump, but that’s not enough,” Sanders said. “We have to transform this country and create a government and an economy that works for all of us and not just the 1%.”

Off the debate stage

One week ahead of the next Democratic presidential nomination debate, two candidates who narrowly failed to make the stage are pledging to continue their White House bids.

“Look. I don’t think it matters,” billionaire environmental and progressive activist and grassroots organizer Tom Steyer told the Monitor when asked if not making the stage would set back his presidential campaign.

Steyer, who was interviewed as he arrived in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state, said he plans on sticking around.

“We’ll keep going, doing exactly what I’m doing here in New Hampshire,” Steyer said. “I will keep talking to people and getting my message out.”

Steyer, who used millions of his own money to blanket the cable news networks and the airwaves in New Hampshire and the other early voting states with TV commercials this summer, highlighted that “people are hearing my message and responding to it.”

He blamed a dearth of qualifying polls for his failure to make next week’s debate stage – he was just one survey shy – and emphasized that “they just haven’t run any polls in the early voting states.”

In his interview, Steyer appeared to criticize some of the other Democratic nomination contenders over one of his key issues – climate change.

“I will declare a climate emergency on day one of my presidency,” he said.

And pointing to his rivals who “have plans that sound great,” he said it’s not enough unless they “are willing to say that.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii ended up two polls short of qualifying for next week’s debate.

“It’s unfortunate that we’ve seen really a lack of transparency in how the DNC is choosing which polls they would recognize as qualifiers,” she told reporters after headlining the “Politics and Eggs” speaking series Thursday morning at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

Looking to next week’s showdown, she acknowledged “it would have been good to be there. It’s a great platform to speak to millions of people in the country.”

But she called failing to make the cut “a minor setback but it’s not one that can’t be overcome.”

Delaney: ‘I’m planning on staying in’

Democratic presidential contender John Delaney didn’t come close to reaching the thresholds to qualify for the debate.

While four other Democratic hopefuls who were not going to make the stage dropped out of the race in the days ahead of the deadline to make the cut, the former three-term congressman from Maryland doesn’t have quitting on his mind yet.

“I’m planning on staying in. Period,” the multi-millionaire former businessman told the Monitor on Wednesday.

Delaney said how he performs in February in the first two states to vote in the primary and caucus nominating calendar will be crucial to his long-shot campaign.

“I have to do well in Iowa and I have to do well in New Hampshire. So that to me is the big deciding point in the campaign,” he emphasized.

He downplayed not making the stage at next week’s nationally televised prime-time showdown.

“It’s always better to be in the debates. But I do think it’s early,” he said. “When I travel around here in New Hampshire, my sense is that people are just starting to dial in. ... I was in the first two debates. It’s not clear that the debates changed anything for anyone.”

N.H. in 2020 spotlight

Thanks to its cherished status as the first primary state, New Hampshire always is in the presidential campaign spotlight.

But this Saturday, all but one of the 20 remaining candidates in the record-setting field of Democratic White House hopefuls will be in the Granite State to speak at the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s annual state convention.

The all-day event will be held Saturday at the SNHU arena in Manchester. And it comes five months before primary date in the Granite State.

Longtime state Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley described the confab as “the true beginning of the New Hampshire primary.”

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