WASHINGTON – In front of a packed audience at George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium on Tuesday night, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Ted Cruz debated the future of the controversial Affordable Care Act as part of a CNN town hall event.
Though the two senators are virtually on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes health care, they engaged in a thoughtful, civil debate and were in agreement on some points.
“It was really cool to experience,” GW student Laura Geraci said. “You want to see bipartisanship and the fact that a major news network is sponsoring this conversation and that these two senators, who are both very influential people in their respective parties, were able to come together and have a civil discourse is a really important thing.”
The event comes at a time when Republicans and Democrats cannot seem to find common ground on what could turn out to be one of the fiercest political fights of the coming years. President Donald Trump has consistently criticized the law, and Cruz has vowed to “repeal every word,” while Democrats have promised to defend former President Barack Obama’s landmark legislation.
After tweeting on Jan. 13 that “The “Unaffordable” Care Act will soon be history,” President Trump said in an interview with Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly last week that an ACA replacement may take until 2018, but Americans could expect tax cuts this year. In contrast, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that he expects to pass legislation to replace the law before the end of 2017.
Moderated by CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, the senators took questions for more than 90 minutes from an audience that included both supporters and critics of the ACA, but began by expressing their varying views on the issue.
Sanders warned that the GOP plan to repeal the law would have negative consequences for millions of Americans.
“If you are one of 20 million Americans who finally has received health insurance, forget about it – you’re gone,” Sanders said. “That means when you get sick, you ain’t gonna be able to go to the doctor. And when you end up in the hospital, you’ll be paying those bills for the rest of your life, or maybe you’ll go bankrupt.”
Cruz countered by saying that Sanders and the Democrats want the government to control health care and this election proved that the American people want something different.
“2010, 2014, 2016 I believe was a mandate from the voters who said we’re tired of premiums going up, we’re tired of deductibles going up, we’re tired of less choices,” Cruz said. “So yes, Congress should move swiftly to repeal Obamacare. Absolutely.”
Citing a number of “broken promises” by President Obama, Cruz claimed that six million people had their plans cancelled against their wishes. However, independent researchers estimate that number to be fewer than one million.
Though he conceded that the ACA needs improvement, Sanders believes that the United States, like all major countries in the world, should be moving toward guaranteeing health care to all people as a right.
One area where the runners-up in the 2016 presidential nominating contests agreed was regarding the large profits taken in by the pharmaceutical industry.
“I would love for us to work together in going after big Pharma,” Cruz said.
On most other issues, though, such protecting people with pre-existing conditions, how to make health care more affordable, and how to reform Medicaid, the leading lawmakers expressed opposing views.
Neosho Ponder, a breast cancer patient, said she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to get coverage without Obamacare.
Cruz said that Republicans support prohibiting insurance companies from cancelling coverage for someone just because they are sick, but Sanders responded that “it’s a direct contradiction of everything you ran for President on.”
Sanders faced a question from Melissa Borkowski, who said that she fears she may have an undiagnosed cancer because she could not afford the health services that she needs.
Sanders called it “absurd” that Borkowski had such an “outrageous deductible,” and again stressed that America needs to join the rest of the industrialized world in guaranteeing health care for all.
“There are many people in America struggling with exactly what you are in the wreckage of Obamacare – with skyrocketing premiums, with deductibles that are unaffordable, and with really limited care,” Cruz said to Borkowski.
Cruz noted that coverage options have gone down considerably under the ACA and that the answer is not more government control, but less.
At GW’s student center, where there was a live watch-party for the event, a number of students holding posters like “Big Government Sucks” and “Socialism Kills” echoed Cruz’s sentiments.
The role of the government in an Obamacare replacement is among the issues that those in attendance are concerned about, as many are wondering what this new health care legislation will look like.
“I think it’s really unfortunate how vague the GOP is being,” GW sophomore Zachary Slotkin said. “I think they aren’t doing the American people any justice by basically repealing it without telling us what the replacement is going to be and essentially saying, ‘Get behind this, and then later you’ll find out exactly what you’re getting behind.’”
Sara Kaplin, another GW student who attended the event, said that compromise may be the best option.
“Speaking from my family perspective, my dad’s a doctor, and so he actually texted me during this thing and he said that the best solution would be maybe to have like a combination of both,” Kaplin said. “I think that having a different type of health care system, like a single-payer system, would actually be better than a universal health care system like Obamacare just because then it would allow people to pick who they want to go to for insurance.”
While a partisan divide on health care remains, Tuesday’s town hall was an important conversation to have regarding one of the most pressing issues facing the country today.