Older Americans vote, and they vote often.
AARP Iowa and the Des Moines Register hosted a presidential candidate forum Monday at Drake University in Des Moines, featuring Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., former Gov. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and former Vice President Joe Biden.
AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization “dedicated to empowering Americans 50 and older to choose how they live as they age.”
Signs hung in bold-lettering throughout the hall: “Reminder: 60% of Iowa caucus goers are over the age of 50.”
The candidates all took their turns answering questions from the audience, composed of invited AARP members from Iowa and the moderators.
Booker took the stage first, speaking at length about health care. The latest YouGov issues poll found 95% of 45-64 year-olds said health care was a very important, or important issue to them — rising to 96% among those over 65.
“There’s lots of ways to get to my ultimate goal, which is everybody in this country having health care,” Booker said.
One of the moderators asked Booker about existing problems in the Medicare system — such as access to care, reimbursement and how to avoid those problems in a “Medicare for All” program.
“If we were to run the hospitals in my state — New Jersey — off of just Medicare reimbursements, most of our hospitals would probably have to end up closing,” Booker said.
The junior senator from New Jersey said during his first Congress as president, he would address reimbursement issues and “expand the public option.”
A public option would allow Americans to buy into a government-operated health insurance program.
The moderator asked Booker about his record, saying “some of your critics said you were too close to pharmaceutical [companies].”
New Jersey, Booker’s home state, is the headquarters of several pharmaceutical firms. In 2014, as Booker was seeking re-election to the U.S. Senate, he received $161,000 in campaign donations from pharmaceutical PACs.
“The person that wrote the bill to allow importations [of prescription drugs] safely from Canada, as well as other countries — is actually me,” Booker said.
Booker added he would “take away” patents from drug companies that raise the price of prescription drugs higher in the United States to prices higher than they are in other countries.
The candidates each had about 25 minutes to speak, and Booker’s time was soon up. In his closing remarks, he said coming up on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing — he wants to “help unite this country, so that we again in the next generation can defy gravity.”
Lauren Solomon, who was in the audience for the event, said it “reinforced” her favorable opinions of Booker and Klobuchar.
“I’ve seen them previously and I just like what they have to say,” Solomon said.
Hickenlooper took the stage next.
The former governor was asked what he would do as president about the shortage of healthcare workers in the United States.
“We have a shortage of all kinds of good jobs right now, especially in health care,” Hickenlooper said. “Part of what we did in Colorado — we got to near universal health care coverage. Part of that was by expanding medicaid, part of that was by creating — I think, arguably the most innovative and successful health care exchange … to get more people to get private insurance.”
Hickenlooper does not support immediately moving to a Medicare for All single-payer system, like many of his opponents in the Democratic primary — instead he supports a public option.
“A public option — if it’s done properly — allows people the choice to migrate to that public option, and if it’s successful ... more people will migrate. As it grows in size the cost will come down,” Hickenlooper said. “Ultimately you could end up with a Medicare for All-type solution, but it would be an evolution, not a revolution.”
Hickenlooper developed a health plan in 2017 alongside then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Hickenlooper said the plan was meant to save the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans in Congress were trying to repeal.
The moderator said that plan did not deal with the cost of prescription drugs, and she asked Hickenlooper what his plan is to lower costs.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for us to find savings, and drugs are a great place to start,” Hickenlooper said. “Look at how many drugs we buy for Medicare, and yet we’re not allowed to negotiate a discount in this country. We are the only industrialized country that does that, so that’s a good place to start.”
Hickenlooper finished up his time by saying “we all have talents that don’t necessarily diminish as rapidly as some people think they do.”
“I watched Willie Nelson — who probably smoked pot every day in his adult life — Willie Nelson’s one of the only musicians out there when he plays, he doesn’t have a teleprompter telling him the lyrics,” Hickenlooper said.
Klobuchar went before the audience next, immediately being asked a question about health care.
“For Medicare, I think the answer there is to first of all make sure we have high quality care and that our focus is on not quantity, but quality of care,” Klobuchar said. “But there’s something else that has just been untouched, and that is the cost of pharmaceuticals.”
Klobuchar added as president she would “unleash the bargaining power of over 40 million seniors” to help lower the cost of prescription drug costs, receiving loud and long applause from the audience.
The Minnesota senator addressed Sen. Bernie Sanders's Medicare for All plan.
Klobuchar said a plan that would “kick” half of Americans off their health insurance plan in four years concerns her.
“[I would] provide a public option, and this is something President Obama wanted to do from the very beginning,” Klobuchar said. “You can do it with Medicaid, you can do with Medicare — but it simply allows for an option that doesn’t involve insurance companies — but still does not dismantle our entire hospital system and our entire way of covering people.”
When asked about mental health care, Klobuchar told a story about her father — who she had mentioned during the Kavanaugh hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year.
“One out of two [Americans] have addiction in their families or with someone close to them,” Klobuchar said. “My own story of my dad … of course he struggled with alcoholism his whole life. I saw him literally climb the highest mountains — he was a mountain climber — and sink to the lowest valleys because of that struggle.”
Klobuchar added her father sought treatment and said she believes everyone should be able to pursue treatment for mental illness and addiction.
“We really do want to make suicide prevention and health care for mental health much more accessible,” Klobuchar said.
In a press gaggle after the event, Klobuchar said she has seen firsthand the struggle with getting workers in long-term health care facilities, because her father is currently receiving care for Alzheimer’s.
Klobuchar was asked about President Donald Trump’s racist tweets from Sunday and said she thought the tweets were "clearly racist."
After telling a story about a Somali-American family who experienced racism in a Minnesota restaurant, Klobuchar added immigrants don’t “diminish America. They are America.”
Jim Jost, who attended the event, said he went in undecided and came out undecided. He added, however, it had reduced the candidates he would choose from. Jost said he liked Klobuchar, Booker and Biden.
“I think they are putting together programs that I like,” Jost said. “Not messing around with Social Security.”
The former vice president was the last of the candidates to take questions.
Biden’s answers were peppered with anecdotes about his family
Beau Biden, the former vice president’s late son, died of cancer in 2015. Biden talked about the importance of personal health care aids, choking up in relating them to his family.
“[Personal health care aids] should be rewarded, compensated for what they do," Biden said. "They’re desperately needed, particularly in poor and rural areas."
Biden told the audience under a Medicare for All system that “Medicare as you know it goes away.”
Medicare for All would not eliminate Medicare as it currently exists but rather expand it to all Americans.
Biden said he has spent a lot of time “dealing with” diseases that medical researchers have nearly “found an answer to.”
“If we don’t find a cure, or a significant amelioration of Alzheimer’s — every single solitary hospital bed in America today will be filled in 20 years with Alzheimer’s patients.”
Biden closed by touting his middle class roots and the power of the United States when it is “together.”
“When the United States has been together, we have never, never, never, never, never, never failed to do what we put our minds to,” Biden said. “And folks, Wall Street didn’t build this country. Ordinary middle class folks like my mom and dad where I came from and all of you built this country.”
A recent poll of likely Iowa caucus goers found Biden in third place, with 17% support. Klobuchar came in sixth at 4%, Booker followed in seventh at 2%. Hickenlooper is at 0% in the state.