Charleston, South Carolina — After weeks of withering attacks from the Hillary Clinton campaign on the issue — and just hours after releasing details of how he would fund his plan for a single-payer health care system — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) came under further criticism in the Democratic presidential debate here Sunday night, exposing a significant rift in the Democratic Party over the future of health care six years after the passage of President Barack Obama's landmark health care reform law.
"I certainly respect Sen. Sanders' intention" in proposing a Medicare-for-all system, Clinton said. "But when you're talking about health care, the details really matter, and therefore, we have been raising questions about the nine bills that he introduced over 20 years as to how they would work and what would be the impact on people's health care. He didn't like that. His campaign didn't like it either. And tonight, he's come out with a new health care plan."
Urging Democrats to focus on defending the Affordable Care Act, Clinton warned that Sanders' call for drastic reform of the health care system would reopen a "contentious debate" the party could ill-afford at a time when Republicans remain fiercely determined to scrap the health reform law.
"I want us to defend and build on the Affordable Care Act and improve it," Clinton said, linking herself to a legacy-defining achievement of a president who remains overwhelmingly popular with the Democratic electorate.
But Sanders emphatically rejected Clinton's desire to work within the status quo.
"What a Medicare for All program does is finally provide in this country health care for every man, woman, and child, as a right," Sanders said, noting that the nation's uninsured population is somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 million people.
While seeking nothing less than a profound transformation in the American health care system, Sanders made the case that his vision for a single-payer system was in keeping with the Democratic Party's historic heritage.
"Now, the truth is, that Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, do you know what they believed in? They believed that health care should be available to all of our people," he said.
Clinton fired back by noting that Obama's health reform law has brought insurance to 19 million more Americans, accusing Sanders of wanting to "tear it up and start over again."
"No one is tearing this up. We're going to go forward," Sanders responded, arguing that a single-payer system would bring the United States in line with other advanced countries.
Both candidates framed their stances as reformist positions that would build on Obama's health reform agenda. Yet as their exchange Sunday night revealed, they have profoundly different visions of just what reforms are possible.
Watch the exchange here: