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Kamala Harris walks back her hand-up moment on health care

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Sen. Kamala Harris raises her hand during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. -
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Kamala Harris was one of two candidates who raised their hands when asked at Thursday night's debate if they would get rid of private health insurance, but the California senator said Friday she'd misunderstood the question.

"No," Harris told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" when asked if she'd work to abolish private health insurance in favor of "Medicare for All" if elected president.

But her subsequent answers also failed to clarify her position about the role of private insurance under her plan, something that has become a pattern in recent months as Democratic candidates look to navigate politically charged questions about Medicare for All's policy implications.

Overall, Harris has been consistent in her position: She supports a single-payer Medicare for All bill by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that would put all Americans on a more generous version of Medicare, but also would explicitly ban any private plan that offered similar coverage.

In discussing the plan, however, Harris has bristled at the notion that the Sanders bill would ban private insurance, saying it would still allow "supplemental" insurance.

"Medicare for All — in my vision of Medicare for All, it includes private insurance where people can have supplemental insurance," she told NBC's Vaughn Hillyard after the debate.

Those supplemental plans, however, would not be what most Americans currently associate with health insurance. They would only cover the few items not covered by Medicare for All, like cosmetic surgery. Under Sanders' plan, all American residents who now get coverage through their employers or through a private individual plan would be required to switch to Medicare as their primary source of coverage after a short transition period.

Asked about the discrepancy at the debate, Harris said she interpreted the debate question, which was asked on both nights of the debate, differently.

"The question was, would you give up your private insurance for that option, and I said yes," Harris said.

During the first night of the debate in Miami, moderator Lester Holt asked, "Many people watching at home have health insurance coverage through their employer. Who here would abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan?"

Only Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio raised their hands.

In Warren's case, it was a significant moment. The senator is a co-sponsor of Sanders' bill, but had avoided taking a clear position as a candidate on whether she'd look to ban private insurance plans from competing with Medicare. As she appeared to make clear in her answers at the debate, she now is fully on board with the Sanders approach.

During Thursday's debate, Holt posed the same question again, but phrased it differently.

"We asked a question about health care last night that spurred a lot of discussion, as you know," Holt said. "We're going to do it again now. Many people watching at home have health insurance through their employer. Who here would abolish their health insurance in favor of a government-run plan?"

Only Sanders and Harris raised their hands.

A number of Democratic candidates have been difficult to pin down on their position on the Sanders bill, so much so that the NBC News issue tracker on the topic includes a "Medicare for All, but ..." category for candidates who have publicly praised or co-sponsored a single-payer proposal but who bring up alternative approaches on the campaign trail.

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey, for example, have called for a more incremental approach during the campaign, one that preserves existing private insurance, as a pathway towards Medicare for All even while they've co-sponsored the Sanders bill.

Most of the Democratic field has stopped short of single-payer, instead favoring a government insurance option that would compete with private insurance plans. Republicans have signaled they plan to make the Sanders bill — and specifically its treatment of existing private plans — a key part of their 2020 message, raising the stakes of the primary debate.

Politics

Sanders released a statement on Friday calling on the other presidential candidates to be clear about their stance on the bill.

"If you support Medicare for All, you have to be willing to end the greed of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries," he said. "That means boldly transforming our dysfunctional system by ending the use of private health insurance, except to cover non-essential care like cosmetic surgeries. And it means guaranteeing health care to everyone through Medicare with no premiums, no deductibles and no copays." The statement did not mention any of the other candidates by name.

The debate was not the first time Harris has delivered mixed messages on the topic.

When asked in a CNN town hall in January if she intended to get rid of existing coverage, Harris said, "The idea is that everyone gets access to medical care, and you don't have to go through the process of going through an insurance company, having them give you approval, going through the paperwork, all of the delay that may require."

"Let's eliminate all of that. Let's move on," she said.

In May, she told CNN she was referring to "all of the bureaucracy" and waste, not the insurance companies.

"I know it was interpreted that way. If you watch the tape, I think you'll see that there are obviously many interpretations of what I said," she told Jake Tapper.