Fact-Checking Last Night's Democratic Debate on Health Care Costs

While health care costs top people's priorities for the next presidential administration, multiple polls show, the 2020 Democratic hopefuls continue to deplore U.S. medical pricing, policy and coverage in favor of their own reforms.

Here's a roundup and fact-check of their statements on uninsured rates, medical debt and drug criminalization on Wednesday night's debate stage.

Senator Elizabeth Warren

  • Tens of millions of Americans are struggling to pay their medical bills

It's true; nearly one in four Americans taking prescription drugs say it's difficult to afford their medicines, according to a 2019 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

  • Thirty-seven million people in the U.S. don't get needed tests or prescriptions filled because they just can't afford it.

That figure is an estimate, but probably an accurate one. Earlier this year, the Commonwealth Fund said 35 percent of Americans aged 19 to 64 skipped prescriptions, tests and specialists, or ignored their medical problems entirely, because of cost concerns, according to in a linked report on Warren's campaign site.

Former Vice President Joe Biden

  • One hundred and sixty million people like their private insurance

"Kind of," PolitiFact said Thursday. The figure appears to refer to the number of Americans who receive health benefits through work, which may no longer be an option under Medicare for All. About 40 percent of people on those plans said they had trouble paying medical bills, according to Kaiser's polling.

Senator Bernie Sanders

  • The U.S. health care system spends twice as much as other countries.

Indeed, the U.S. indeed spends nearly twice as much as 10 wealthy countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, on medical care, but often with lesser results. That's according to a 2018 study published in JAMA (formerly The Journal of the American Medical Association).

  • Eighty-seven million Americans remain uninsured or underinsured

According to the Commonwealth Fund, about 30 percent of adults were "under-insured" in 2018, meaning they had high annual deductibles and out-of-pocket costs, while 24 percent lacked coverage altogether. That's about 87 million in total.

  • Five hundred thousand people go bankrupt because of medically related issues.

That might be an underestimate. More than 65 percent of all bankruptcies, or about 530,000, resulted from paying for medical issues, according to a study published by the American Public Health Association in 2019.

Senator Cory Booker

  • The war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people, while marijuana is already legal for people of privilege. (Representative Tulsi Gabbard delivered similar remarks.)

Drug prohibition has long been fraught with policies that unevenly applied to people of different races, according to widespread reports. Despite similar marijuana use across races, African-Americans are arrested and incarcerated far more frequently than white people, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

Senator Amy Klobuchar

  • More than 70 percent of Americans support Roe v. Wade, and more than 90 percent support funding for Planned Parenthood.

The first statistic is close to being right. In April, about 65 percent of Kaiser respondents said they didn't want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, including 42 percent of Republicans. But slightly less than 75 percent support funding for Planned Parenthood, according to Kaiser's polling in 2017.

Health Costs Top of Mind for Dems
Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders at the Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta on November 20. Alex Wong/Getty Images