Where Bernie Sanders sees bipartisan middle ground on health care

JUDY WOODRUFF: The collapse of the Republicans' push on health care raises serious questions about the road ahead for reform, key among them, will the Democrats come to the table?

To explore that and more, we are joined now by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. He is the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee.

Welcome back to the NewsHour, Senator Sanders.

So, what happened to your Republican colleagues? What went wrong?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, I-Vt.: Well, what went wrong, Judy, is they brought forth a disastrous health care bill that had the support of all of 12 percent of the American people, that was opposed by the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, the AARP.

And virtually every national health care organization understood that, when you throw 22 million people off of health insurance, when you cut Medicaid by $800 billion, when you raise premiums for older workers, when you defund Planned Parenthood, and you make it almost impossible for people with preexisting conditions to get the health care they need and can afford, you know what? You have got a bill that's a stinker, it shouldn't go anyplace.

And it didn't go anyplace. And that's a good thing for the American people. And I thank the millions of people who stood up and fought back and said that that legislation is not what this country is about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, when the president — he did criticize today the Republicans, but he also blamed Democrats and he said Democrats are obstructionists. They're only about obstructing.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, if he wants to blame me for helping kill that bill, I accept that responsibility completely.

This bill was an absolute disaster. Its goal was primarily to give tax breaks to the rich and to large corporations, rather than to address the needs of the American people. If the president wants to blame me and anyone else for preventing 22 million Americans losing their health insurance, I accept that criticism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we're hearing, Senator — our Lisa Desjardins was reporting the plan now is if the vote for a pure repeal goes down, which it's expected to, the next step is to go to committees, go back to what is called regular order, to work with Democrats.

Are you and others Democrats prepared to work with Republicans?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Of course.

Why not — look, nobody has said, Judy, that the Affordable Care Act is anywhere near perfect. It did add 20 million more people to the ranks of the insured. That's good. Deductibles, however, are too high. Co-payments are too high. Premiums are too high. And we pay by far the highest in the world for prescription drugs, getting ripped off every day by the pharmaceutical industry.

So, if the Republicans want to sit down and say how do we improve the Affordable Care Act, not destroy it, how do we improve it, let's go forward and do that. I have some very specific ideas on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's talk about that, because, realistically, you know where many of the Republicans are. We know where the Democrats, you and others, are.

Where's the middle ground here? Where do you see a place for compromise?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, I'll tell you.

As I just mentioned, the cost of prescription drugs in this country is far, far higher than in any other country. You may recall that Donald Trump as a candidate for president talked about how he was going to take on the pharmaceutical industry and it was going to lower prescription drug costs.

Well, we have some ideas to do that. Republicans may have other ideas. Let's talk about lowering prescription drug costs, saving the federal government substantial sums of money. Let's talk about having Medicare negotiate prices with the pharmaceutical industry.

That's number one. Number two, there are areas of this country right now where there are no insurance companies offering the Affordable Care Act. Let us provide a public option in every county in America, so if people don't like what the private insurance companies are offering or there is no offer, let them have at least a public option.

Number three, I believe that the American people would very much like to see lowering the eligibility age of Medicare from 65 to 55. And, lastly, in my view — and I speak only for myself — the United States must join the rest of the industrialized world, guarantee health care to all people as a right.

And that is why I will be introducing a Medicare-for-all single-payer program. It will not be passed, believe me, in this session of Congress. I know that. But we have got to begin the discussion as to why we spend so much more per capita on health care than any other nation, why we pay the highest prices in the world, why we do not guarantee health care to all people, as every other major country does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you about what is going to happen in the meantime.

You mentioned prescription drug prices. You mentioned having a public option in different parts of the country. But we know it's the case that, in many states, there is no insurance company that is providing coverage.

The Republicans like to say the market, the exchanges are collapsing. What can be done in the short term, Senator Sanders, to shore these up? Is there a way to come up with subsidies that both parties can agree to?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Oh, yes.

Well, Judy, I think — it's not me talking. This is what the insurance companies are saying. What they're saying is, there's great instability in the marketplace, precisely because of tweets like the one President — the president sent out today: Let's see the Obamacare act destroyed.

Well, that's not exactly a strong sign of confidence going out to the insurance companies. So, what we have got to do is, number one, we have to enforce the individual mandate. We're losing a lot of money that is not coming into the system.

And, number two, we have to deal with cost-sharing, which is something we have been doing many, many years. If you do that, I think you will stabilize the market for the short term.

But long term, longer term, we have to improve the Affordable Care Act, and longer term than that we have to join the rest of the world and guarantee health care to all people as a right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much more money is the federal government going to have to put into health care in order for this to work?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, that's a very good question. And I'm sure that there's absolutely nobody in the world who knows the answer to it.

All that I can say is that we are spending far more per capita than people in any other country, and our health care outcomes are in many cases worse in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality and so forth.

So, I think the issue is not necessarily — we may have to spend more money. The issue is to trying to figure out why we end up spending so much more than other countries.

And one of the reasons, clearly, high cost of prescription drugs. Second reason, we do very, very badly in terms of primary health care. There are millions of people, even those who have insurance, who can not get to a doctor when they are sick. They end up in the emergency room, very expensive. They end up in the hospital, very, very expensive.

If we greatly expanded primary health care, lower the cost of prescription drugs, we take a giant step forward in lowering health care costs in America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, very quickly, if you had to name one area where you could see an early agreement between Democrats and Republicans on health care, what would it be?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Prescription drugs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we are listening to you, Senator Bernie Sanders. Thank you very much.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, tomorrow night, we are going to get a Republican perspective, and that will from Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

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