HOUSTON, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 12: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden look on as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Texas Southern University's Health and PE Center on September 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas. Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls were chosen from the larger field of candidates to participate in the debate hosted by ABC News in partnership with Univision. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Biden, Sanders and Warren clash over health care
01:58 - Source: CNN

With United Auto Workers still patrolling the picket lines in their strike against General Motors, presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden spent Tuesday drawing sharp distinctions over their plans for health care in a way that could directly impact those on strike.

GM revealed that health care benefits for those on strike will soon come to an end, meaning the union will be forced to pick up the tab for COBRA coverage. Sanders, who has faced criticism over how his “Medicare for All” plan would impact unions and their negotiated benefits, argued that if his plan were the law of the land those striking wouldn’t have to worry about their coverage.

“Here you have a situation with UAW is out on strike. 49,000 workers. I am sure that in that 49,000 there are family members who are seriously ill, and yet the greed of General Motors – which has the amount of money to pay their CEO something like $21 million a year – they cut off the health care benefits for those 49,000 workers,” Sanders said.

“Under Medicare for All, every American – whether you’re working, whether you’re not working, when you are going from one job to another job – it’s there with you.”

Earlier in the day, at a presidential forum hosted by the AFL-CIO in Philadelphia, Biden took a subtle shot at the Sanders plan. Without mentioning Sanders or Medicare for All by name, the former vice president volunteered that his health care plan would protect the union’s right to negotiate its own health care benefits with its employer.

“I have a significant health care plan,” Biden said. “But guess what? Under mine, you can keep your health insurance you bargained for if you like it. If you don’t, you can move, and you can come into a public plan.”

Sanders took issue with Biden’s assessment.

“That’s wrong,” said the independent senator from Vermont. “The United States has got to join every other major country on Earth and guarantee health care to all people – union workers and nonunion workers – as a right.”

Two key Sanders advisers later offered an even tougher assessment of Biden’s position. Campaign manager Faiz Shakir called Biden “Pinocchio Joe” on Twitter, while senior adviser Warren Gunnels responded to the Biden comments forcefully.

“Try telling that to the UAW workers who had their benefits taken away from them by GM,” Gunnels wrote on Twitter. “Medicare for All is the only way to make sure that no American will ever lose their health insurance ever again and workers will finally receive the higher wages and benefits they need and deserve.”

Labor groups have raised questions about what would happen to the benefits they’ve negotiated into collective bargaining agreements if Medicare for All becomes law. Sanders’ plan effectively eliminates private insurance, but does allow it to continue. Private plans can be sold as long as they don’t offer the same benefits as Medicare for All.

Sanders has said unions could continue to offer health plans with extra benefits not covered by Medicare for All. He has also promised that he would require those collective bargaining agreements between unions and companies to be renegotiated and any savings provided to the companies be distributed to employees in the form of better salaries and other benefits.

Biden believes that step shouldn’t be necessary.

“You’ve broken your neck to get it, you’ve given up wages to get it, you should be entitled to keep it, and no plan should take it away from you if that’s what you decide,” he said.

Sanders has long contended that guaranteeing the benefits to all would put union members further ahead in the long run.

“This is a dysfunctional system designed to make $100 billion in profits for the drug companies and the insurance companies, not one that provides quality care to all, and that’s what the fight is about,” he said.