Michael Bloomberg talks about health care and capitalism like no other Democrat

Why are health care and tuition so expensive? “We, the public, want things that don’t make any sense economically,” Bloomberg told the Tampa Bay Times.
Democratic candidate for president Mike Bloomberg talks with Tampa Bay Times political editor Steve Contorno during his trip to Tampa for a campaign rally on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020 in Tampa.
Democratic candidate for president Mike Bloomberg talks with Tampa Bay Times political editor Steve Contorno during his trip to Tampa for a campaign rally on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 27, 2020|Updated Jan. 27, 2020

TAMPA — To his 300 supporters and a stage full of cameras, Michael Bloomberg declared Sunday what many other Democratic presidential candidates before him have: “Health care is a right."

But Bloomberg’s diagnosis of the American health care system could not be more different than those offered by his rivals for the Democratic nomination, who have blamed hospitals, Big Pharma and the insurance industry — some in harsher terms than others — for valuing profits over patients.

Some of Bloomberg’s points on health care are standard Democratic talking points. “I’ll build on Obamacare,” the former New York City mayor vaguely promised the Tampa crowd. Later, in a 10-minute interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Bloomberg said he would prioritize lowering drug prices and protect people with pre-existing conditions.

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But he otherwise exonerated the targets Democrats typically hold responsible for the rising cost of health care in America.

Take hospitals. “Hospitals don’t have hunting lodges for the trustees,” Bloomberg told the Times. “They’re not wasting money.”

The problem, Bloomberg said, are patients who demand each hospital has all the bells and whistles when it might make more sense to “take somebody and drive them to another hospital to share a piece of equipment.”

“We, the public, want things that don’t make any sense economically,” Bloomberg said. “We demand them and then we go and complain about them.”

The cost of unnecessary medical care and hospitals that order up tests to pay for new equipment was a frequent talking point during the health care debate under President Barack Obama.

But this is not the debate Democrats are having right now. Even in the vast space between the camps who want socialized health care under Medicare for All and those who want to “build on Obamacare,” the candidates are fighting to convince voters of the same thing: They will stand up for patients against a money hungry (if not corrupt) industry that increasingly bankrupts patients.

That’s not Bloomberg’s view. He couldn’t say what health insurance would cost an average middle-class American family under the Bloomberg plan. But here’s what it won’t cost: $0.

“You’d love to have them not pay anything,” Bloomberg said. “That’s not practical.”

Democratic candidate for president Mike Bloomberg visits Tampa for a campaign rally on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020  in Tampa.
Democratic candidate for president Mike Bloomberg visits Tampa for a campaign rally on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]

This philosophy extends beyond health care. America’s student debt problem, born out of the rising cost of college tuition, is also the fault of consumers, according to Bloomberg. “We want (colleges) to have lots of buildings and lots of programs," Bloomberg said. "It drives the price up and then we complain about the price.”

There’s truth to that, but it also ignores that state investments in higher education haven’t kept up with the cost of inflation and the proliferation of predatory for-profit colleges. And, again, it’s a distant argument from the conversation among the other Democrats. They may differ on whether college should be free and student debt cancelled, but haven’t blamed the general public for the predicament.

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To Bloomberg, problems like health care, income inequality and the cost of higher education don’t need “big, structural change," to borrow a phrase from Sen. Elizabeth Warren — they just need a leader who knows how to manage them. He also doesn’t believe American capitalism is stacked against the middle class, like most of the candidates he’s up against.

“No system is perfect,” Bloomberg said. “But this one’s a lot better than the others.”

Read the rest of Political Editor Steve Contorno’s one-on-one interview with Bloomberg.

You spoke a lot about public education toward the end of your speech.

My No. 1 priority. If you want to end poverty start with education. I’m a big believer, if you want to survive in the more technological world we’re going to, No. 1 is education.

You’ve talked positively about school choice in the past. Do you still believe that school choice is important?

Well, choice means different things to different people.

School vouchers?

Vouchers I’ve never been in favor of. You can move the money around, but to where? You have to have an alternative school system. In New York, we have charter schools that are public schools, and we have non charter schools that are public schools. The money comes from the same place. We actually fund charter schools less than we fund non charter schools because the charter schools can raise money privately as well. But if parents want choice, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to have input in terms of where their kids go to school.

I do think the government has the right to insist that your kids go to school and get an education. But I don’t think they should tell kids where to go to school. They can set rules as to who can get into a given school, but I don’t like the idea of them telling parents, “You’ve got to send them there.”

Why should a Florida Democratic primary voter support a candidate who helped get George W. Bush reelected?

I don’t know that I got George W. Bush re elected (Bloomberg campaigned for and endorsed Bush in 2004). I thanked George W. Bush for sending money to New York after 9/11. And if you want to have somebody do favors for you in the future, I suggest you thank them for things they did in the past. George W. Bush was very good to New York, and he’s a very nice guy, but nobody should confuse me for being a Republican if you just take a look at all of the things that I stand for, whether it’s a woman’s right to choose or go right down the list, guns or any of the issues, there’s no question I’m a Democrat.

I think the reason the Democrats here should worry is if the Republicans were to win Florida, they would win the national election. They cannot let that happen. And so if I’m a Florida voter, a Democratic voter, I want to find who’s got the best chance of beating Donald Trump.

Florida Republicans have used your city as a punching bag over and over again, claiming that the city has high taxes and if you actually want to grow a business, you should come to Florida because we have some of the low lowest taxes in the country.

There are some people who go to Florida for the climate. There’s some that go for the culture. There are some that go for tax reasons. There are more people that move to New York to retire, than move out of New York to retire.

I love what New York has. That’s where I’ve lived since 1966. I grew up in Boston before that. I think New York’s wonderful. Tampa is a great city to live. Look at the skyline. There’s lots of cranes. You’ve got a great mayor. But there’s no reason to think that there’s one city is for everybody. And I don’t agree that everybody is moving out in New York. The economy is booming. There’s a crane in every block, from downtown to all the way uptown. It’s really quite amazing. A lot of people want to be there.

Some of your opponents have called for things like “big, structural changes” in our tax system and in our government and in our society. Do you agree with that? Do you think American capitalism is corrupt and stacked against middle Americans?

No, I do not. Go look at other places where they have tried other systems. I don’t think you would want that for America. It is true there is income inequality. It is true there injustices in our tax code and with wealth distribution, but on balance, no system is perfect, but this one’s a lot better than the others. And our problem is we haven’t been able to create enough jobs for some people and the reason more than anything is they don’t have the education. Industry today wants to hire people. You talk to any employer, they will tell you their biggest problem is they can’t find people with a good education. Talk to the military, only 25 percent of the people qualify because the others either physically can’t pass a test or mentally, education wise, can’t pass the test.

You just got to go and make sure that we educate our people, we keep them in good health, and the system is not perfect, but I think much better. Incidentally, there’s a practical aspect as well. Even if you decide something is better, if there’s no chance in heck that it’s going to be implemented, you’re just wasting everybody’s time. Medicare for all — it’s not the best idea, but it will never pass. We could never afford it. And in fact, 155-odd million people in America have insurance from their employers. They don’t want to lose that insurance because that insurance is better than Medicare. And if you took everybody down to the Medicare level, every hospital would close because they wouldn’t get any money. Hospitals don’t like to take Medicare patients because they don’t pay as well as the private sector employer provided plans do. And so we need to keep those 155 million people where companies are paying and paying more than the government is paying, but it helps the whole system.

How much would a health care policy cost per month to a middle-class American under the Bloomberg plan?

Well, I think it all depends on where you live. There’s very big differences in cost of services, and what kind of system you want to have. We have to make sure we treat preexisting conditions, you have to make sure that you warn people on out-of-network surprises. This is just devastating some people. We have to do some thing about drug prices, which are just much higher than anyplace else in the world, even though most of the drugs are created here, and an awful lot with funding from the National Institute of Health. So it’s our money funding it, why the hell are we not getting the benefit of that, or certainly, why should we be penalized?

You can go through and find lots of inequalities. Still, this is a better system than anyplace else.

Can you give us a ballpark of how much you would like an average American pay?

You’d love to have them not pay anything. That’s not practical. Keep in mind hospitals don’t have hunting lodges for the trustees. They’re not wasting money. You can question how efficient they are and why they can’t provide services for less. Part of it is because we the public want things that don’t make any sense economically. We demand them and then we go and complain about them. That’s certainly true with tuition and colleges. We want them to have lots of buildings and lots of programs. It drives the price up and then we complain about the price. Same thing in hospitals. We want to have every piece of modern equipment in every single hospital even though you’re only going to use it periodically and you could take somebody and drive them to another hospital to share a piece of equipment. That would reduce hospital costs. But we complain about it. We want every hospital to have everything and then we complain that the costs are too high.

Abortion issues are going through our state Legislature, it will probably go through the state Supreme Court and may go through the U.S. Supreme Court at the national level. Here, there’s a bill that addresses parental consent. Do you think a minor should have to get consent from an adult, a parent or guardian before having an abortion?

It’s a question I have always wrestled with in my mind because if it were my daughter, I would be very upset to find out that she got an abortion and I didn’t know. Having said that, the practical thing is that a lot of kids would not get what they need, and so on, on balance, I would come out and say that you should not require parental consent. Not happy about it. But I think that’s where I’d come out.

Anything you want our Tampa Bay readers to know before I let you go?

I think that I’m the one that can beat Donald Trump. I think I’m the one that knows how to run a government. I ran the government with 300,000 employees and 8.4 million citizens. It’s not exactly the same thing as the federal government with 4 million employees and 330 million, but it’s as close as anybody’s going to come. I don’t think we need a legislator in City Hall, in the state Capitol, in the governor’s offices, or in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. You need a manager. This is a management job. You have to figure out how to pull people together and provide services. If you don’t know how to do it, there’s no time when you become president for learning on the job. If you need training wheels when you get there, you’re the wrong person.