As the presidential election draws near, we reflect on the meaningful differences in health policy priorities and platforms between the two candidates, which we’ve described more fully in our recent blog series. While similarities exist in some areas — most notably prescription drug pricing and proposals to control health care costs — the most striking differences between the positions taken by President Donald Trump and those of former Vice President Joe Biden are on safeguarding access to affordable health care coverage, advancing health equity for those who have been historically disadvantaged by the current system, and managing the novel coronavirus pandemic.
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The importance of maintaining or expanding access to affordable health care in the midst of a pandemic cannot be understated. Going into the crisis, 30 million Americans lacked health coverage, with many more potentially at risk as a result of the current economic downturn. And even for many with coverage, costs are a barrier to receiving care. Moreover, despite efforts by Congress and the Trump administration to ease the financial burden of COVID-19 testing and treatment, many people remain concerned about costs; examples of charges for COVID-related medical expenses are not uncommon.
In this context, President Trump’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the most important signal of his position on health care. The administration’s legal challenge of the law will be considered by the Supreme Court this fall. With no Trump proposal for a replacement to the ACA, if the Court strikes the law in its entirety or in part, many voters cannot be certain that their health coverage will be secure. By undermining the ACA — the vast law that protects Americans with preexisting health conditions and makes health coverage more affordable through a system of premium subsidies and cost-sharing assistance — the president has put coverage for millions at risk.
Trump issued an executive order to preserve preexisting condition protections. If the ACA remains intact, the order is redundant. But if the ACA is repealed by the Court, the order is meaningless because it lacks the legal underpinning and legislative framework to take effect.
In contrast, Vice President Biden has proposed expanding coverage through the ACA by adding a public option, enhancing subsidies to make health care more affordable, filling the gap for low-income families living in states that did not expand Medicaid, and giving people with employer health plans the option to enroll in marketplace coverage and take advantage of premium subsidies. For sure, if Biden is elected, many policy details must be ironed out; passing legislation in a deeply divided Congress is never easy. Despite these challenges, Biden proposes expanding health coverage rather than revoking it.
Just as COVID-19 has exposed gaps in health coverage and affordability, it also has highlighted the poor health outcomes stemming from racial and ethnic inequities in the U.S. health system. Communities of color — Black, Hispanic, and American Indian and Alaska Native people — have higher rates of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths compared to white people. These disparities are a result of myriad factors, many of which are deeply rooted in structural racism. The candidates’ plans to address health disparities and advance health equity set them apart.
The ACA has played a critical role in reducing disparities in access to health care and narrowed the uninsured rate among Black and Hispanic people compared to white people. Medicaid expansion has been key to improving racial equity. Repealing the ACA, as President Trump has sought to do, would reverse these gains. Even beyond repealing the ACA, this administration has pursued policies intended to limit Medicaid eligibility — for example, by permitting states to impose work requirements and other restrictions that would lead to fewer people covered. These measures and others are already having an impact; coverage gains achieved through the ACA have eroded since 2016. Health care for legal immigrants also has declined as a result of policies like the recently finalized “public charge” rule, which seems also to have caused an increase in uninsurance among children. The administration has further revoked ACA antidiscrimination and civil rights protections for LGBTQ people.
In addition to restoring and expanding coverage under the ACA, Vice President Biden has pledged to address health disparities and reinstate antidiscrimination protections. He has a proposal to advance racial equity not just in health care but across the economy. If successful, his plan could address underlying factors contributing to higher rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths among people of color, as well as their higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, and other health conditions tied to social determinants of health.
Finally, the candidates differ deeply in their approaches to the coronavirus pandemic. President Trump has failed to orchestrate a national strategy for combating coronavirus and has routinely undermined accepted public health advice with respect to mask-wearing and social distancing. He has delegated to the states responsibility for controlling the pandemic when it is clear that the virus travels freely across the country, regardless of state borders. Lax states can negate the efforts of those states sacrificing to bring the pandemic under control. Vice President Biden has strongly signaled, though his personal conduct and rhetoric, that he intends more aggressive federal leadership in fighting the virus.
In a recent Commonwealth Fund survey of likely voters, control of the pandemic and covering preexisting conditions were very important factors in choosing a president. In seven battleground states, protections for preexisting conditions outweighed COVID-19 and health costs as the leading health care issue voters are considering. In all 10 battleground states included in the survey, Vice President Biden was viewed as the more likely candidate to address these critical health care issues.
Perhaps since the Civil War, the United States has never faced starker choices in a presidential election. In health and other areas, there are profound differences in the positions of President Trump and former Vice President Biden. Voting this November is literally a matter of life and death for the American people.