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The first Biden-Trump debate of 2024: What they said on healthcare

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President Biden and Donald Trump met onstage for the first time, and clashed on abortion rights and drug prices.

President Biden and Donald Trump engaged in their first debate of the 2024 presidential race Thursday night, and they staked out positions on abortion rights and other healthcare issues.

Images: The White House, The National Archives

President Biden and Donald Trump met in their first debate of the 2024 presidential race Thursday night.

In a highly charged contest between the president and the former president, healthcare may not be the highlight in a race defined by voters’ perceptions of the Jan. 6 insurrection, inflation, immigration, the age of the candidates, and Trump’s criminal conviction.

While it wasn’t the story of the night, Biden and Trump clashed on some key areas related to healthcare.

Abortion

Biden and Trump offered contrasting views on abortion, which figures to be a key issue in the race.

Trump claimed credit for the Supreme Court ruling returning abortion to the states. Trump significantly reshaped the Supreme Court during his presidency, appointing three justices. The Supreme Court ruled two years ago that abortion is not a constitutional right, leaving the issue to the states. Since the high court’s decision, 21 states have enacted laws restricting abortion.

Trump said returning abortion to the states “has been a great thing.” Trump said he wouldn’t block the use of abortion medications. He also incorrectly said that some Democrat-controlled states allow newborn babies to be killed, which is illegal in every state, as Politifact reports.

Biden denounced the Supreme Court ruling in the Dobbs decision, calling it “a terrible thing.”

“If I’m elected, I’m going to restore Roe v. Wade,” Biden said. And he said, “We are not for late-term abortions.”

When talking about abortion rights and access, Biden said, “A doctor should be making those decisions.”

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that hospitals and doctors in Idaho can provide emergency abortion care, temporarily blocking a law that restricts abortions unless a patient’s life is at risk. Hospitals and doctors have said they are pleased that clinicians can provide abortions in emergencies, but they are anxious for the court to deliver a definitive ruling protecting physicians and care teams nationwide.

Drug prices

When asked about rising consumer prices, Biden pointed to his efforts to lower prescription drug costs.

Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which caps insulin prices at $35 per month for Medicare participants. Biden has said he wants to make those lower prices available for all Americans.

In 2025, a $2,000 cap on out-of-pocket prescription drug costs is slated to take effect for Medicare enrollees. Biden has called on Congress to place a $2,000 cap on out-of-pocket prescription drug costs to all Americans with private insurance, and he reiterated that desire during the debate.

During the debate, Biden incorrectly described the insulin price cap as $15, and also incorrectly said the cap on prescription drug costs taking effect next year is $200, not $2,000. He later used the $2,000 figure on the cap on drug costs in his closing remarks.

On the debate stage, Trump said, “I’m the one that got the insulin down for the seniors.”

Trump began a Medicare pilot program that would allow insurers to cap insulin at $35 per month, but Biden signed the law setting the $35 maximum price and expanded it more broadly to Medicare beneficiaries, as The New York Times notes.

The Affordable Care Act

Biden has made protecting the Affordable Care Act a central piece of his campaign. It came up in the debate Thursday night, with Biden accusing Trump of wanting to “get rid of” the Affordable Care Act.

During his presidency, Trump aimed to overturn the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare. As he seeks to return to the Oval Office, he has pivoted, saying he doesn’t want to eliminate the Affordable Care Act but improve it.

Perhaps surprisingly, there wasn’t more focused questioning on the Affordable Care Act, since it’s been an important issue for many Americans.

The age question

Both Biden and Trump were asked about the voters’ concerns about their ages as they seek to serve as president for four years. Biden is 81 and Trump is 78.

“This guy’s three years younger and a lot less competent,” Biden said of Trump.

Conversely, Trump pointed to taking “cognitive tests” and said he’d like to see Biden take a similar test.

“I think I’m in very good shape,” Trump said.

In a surreal exchange late in the debate, Biden and Trump had one of their most heated clashes over who is better at golf.

Overall performance

Going beyond healthcare and looking at the debate as a whole, Biden struggled with some of his answers, particularly early in the debate. CNN chief national correspondent John King reported that some prominent Democrats were alarmed by Biden’s performance.

“They leave this debate panicked,” King said. He added that some of those concerns were voiced by key Democrats “who love Joe Biden.”

Kate Bedingfield, a CNN contributor who served as White House communications director under Biden, called it a “really disappointing debate performance from Joe Biden.”

Vice President Kamala Harris appeared on CNN and acknowledged that Biden had a "slow start," but said he had a strong finish. Harris said that Biden's debate performance should mean less than his work as president for more than three years.

"I'm talking about the choice in November," Harris said. "I'm talking about one of the most important elections in our collective lifetime."

Political analysts noted that Trump fared worse on policy issues and routinely issued false statements throughout the debate. Trump falsely claimed that he enabled veterans to see doctors outside the VA, when then-President Barack Obama signed that legislation in 2014. Trump also incorrectly said that Biden had scrapped the program.

Critics noted that Trump downplayed the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. And after repeated questioning on if he would accept the election results, win or lose, Trump responded, “if it’s a fair and legal and good election.”

But most analysts and political commentators said that Biden faltered on the big stage.

Tom Nichols, a staff writer for The Atlantic, wrote on X, “Trump was lying ... But debates are not won on wonk points. This was a bad night for Biden and there's no spinning it.”


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