Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is expected on Wednesday to call for all Democratic presidential candidates to pledge to reject contributions from the health care industry, escalating the ideological battle over an issue that has become central to the 2020 Democratic primary.
With the appeal — which is set to be delivered as part of a formal address on one of the senator’s signature issues, “Medicare for all” — Mr. Sanders aims to expand the sources of money considered verboten in the Democratic primary. Though some candidates have already vowed not to accept Wall Street and fossil fuel cash, Mr. Sanders will invite all candidates to join him in refusing to accept contributions over $200 from PACs, lobbyists and executives of health insurance and drug companies.
Several of his presidential opponents, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., have accepted money from health care executives, according to recent financial reports.
“You can’t change a corrupt system by taking its money,” Mr. Sanders is expected to say, according to an excerpts provided ahead of a speech he will deliver Wednesday in Washington. “Candidates who are not willing to take that pledge should explain to the American people why those interests believe their campaigns are a good investment.”
Mr. Sanders’s address on Medicare for all comes as he seeks to restore momentum to his campaign heading into the second set of presidential debates. He has had a string of disappointing poll results and a financial quarter in which he was outraised by a handful of rivals, including his fellow progressive, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
It is also a deliberate effort to distinguish himself from other candidates — many of whom have expressed varying degrees of support for Medicare for All but have not provided much detail. And it sets up a direct contrast with Mr. Biden, whom he considers his chief rival and who on Monday unveiled his own health care plan that put him in conflict with Mr. Sanders.
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While Mr. Sanders aims to eliminate most private health insurance as part of his single-payer plan, Mr. Biden pledged to shore up the Affordable Care Act — the health care measure passed when he was vice president in the Obama administration — and create a so-called public option.
“The main point that I’m going to be making is that the struggle we are having in this country for health care for all — for a Medicare for all single-payer system — is really not a debate over health care policy,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview on Tuesday. “It is a question of whether, as a nation, we are prepared to take on the incredible power of the insurance industry, the drug industry and the entire health care industry.”
“It’s hard for anybody in a rational way to say, ‘This is a good health care system’ — it’s not,” he added.
Until recent days, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden have largely avoided attacking each other; during the first debate, when they were on the same stage, neither markedly sought to highlight their differences.
But in seeking to draw an explicit contrast over health care, both candidates have opened a new front in the fight for the Democratic nomination that also underscores the progressive-versus-centrist divide in the party.
The speech Wednesday, like one Mr. Sanders gave last month on his philosophy of democratic socialism, seemed intended to garner maximum news media exposure: He is delivering it in Washington, steps away from where many political journalists work, rather than in an early voting state like Iowa or New Hampshire.
It is not clear if Mr. Sanders will draw explicit contrasts in his speech between his position and that of other candidates, including Mr. Biden. In announcing the address, Mr. Sanders billed it as an opportunity to “confront the opponents of Medicare for all and the insurance industry that profits off those who are sick.”
But in delivering the speech, he will emphasize in familiar terms his unbridled, decades-long history of fighting for single-payer health care and how he is responsible for pushing the policy to the fore in Democratic politics.
Mr. Sanders is also expected to pressure his rivals to affirm or disavow his unambiguous vision for a single-payer system, a delineation that could be important for progressive voters who are increasingly establishing litmus tests to assess ideological purity.
“I don’t think there really is much of a debate as to whether or not the current health care system is dysfunctional,” Mr. Sanders said in the interview. “The real question that we have to ask ourselves is why? How did we end up where we are?”
“What the real debate is about,” he added, “is do we have the courage to take on these incredibly powerful special interests, who make huge profits?”