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Man Tells Bernie Sanders He Will Kill Himself Because Of Medical Debt


Senator Bernie Sanders took a lot of criticism from his fellow candidates in last week's presidential debate over his health care plan. So Sanders used a recent campaign trip to Nevada to defend his "Medicare for All" proposal. NPR's Scott Detrow was there. And just a quick note, this story has an exchange that some listeners might find disturbing.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: The day after the debate, Sanders was in Carson City. His voice was still hoarse. And he was clearly still thinking about the night before, when several other candidates criticized his plan to entirely do away with private health insurance.


BERNIE SANDERS: But I was not pleased that Vice President Biden distorted what Medicare for All is and, in fact, simply parroted the line coming from the health care industry.

DETROW: Biden says building on Obamacare and creating an optional Medicare-type national plan is the better approach. But for Sanders, private companies and their profit motives are the root of the problem. He blasted the insurance industry in Nevada, along with the big pharmaceutical companies he blames for spreading opioid addiction.


SANDERS: Oh, somebody here says lock them up. No, we don't do that. They are rich and powerful. I'm sorry. Clearly, you do not understand the criminal justice system in America.


DETROW: Lately, Sanders has been turning rallies into town halls where, instead of asking him questions, people vent about their health insurance problems. In Carson City, a man named John Weigel told Sanders how his bills keep piling up to over $100,000. And this exchange may be disturbing for some listeners.


JOHN WEIGEL: I can barely take care of myself. And I do not have the energy to fight these people...

DETROW: Weigel was angry and desperate.


SANDERS: How are you going to pay off a hundred...

WEIGEL: I can't. I can't. I'm going to kill myself...

SANDERS: Hold it, John. Stop it. You're not going to kill yourself. All right. Stop it...

WEIGEL: I can't deal with this. I have Huntington's disease.

DETROW: Sanders and his wife, Jane, spoke with Weigel after the event. And Sanders supporters have since set up an online fundraising effort to help him with those bills. After Carson City, it was on to Reno in Las Vegas. Nevada is the third state up in the presidential contest. That's due largely to the influence of one man, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid's retired now and battling cancer. But he's still paying close attention, and he's still in touch with the 2020 candidates. So I drove to his house in the Las Vegas suburbs.

Fifteen. We're looking for 17.

Reid was wearing a straw fedora sitting in his sunny living room.

HARRY REID: It's my house. I can put my hat on if I want, right?


DETROW: Nevada's often the overlooked early state. It isn't in the national campaign narratives much.

REID: People go to New Hampshire. It's easy. Iowa's easy. South Carolina's easy. Coming to Nevada's harder. But they're making a mistake not coming here more often.

DETROW: Reid points out Nevada is the first early state with a significant minority population. Latinos, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up a big chunk of caucus goers.

REID: We're a state that looks like the rest of the country, and you don't have that other places.

DETROW: Several of the campaigns say immigration, climate change and affordable housing are key issues in Nevada. In Las Vegas, Sanders rolled out a $2.5 trillion plan to expand affordable housing and address homelessness.


SANDERS: If you're spending 50% of your limited incomes on housing, how do you pay for food? How do you pay for transportation?

DETROW: In a crowded primary field, Sanders is relying on the electorate buying into the policies he's embraced for decades. Still, here and there, he's showing some adaptation to modern campaigning.


SANDERS: What I'd like to do now, if it's OK with you - if anybody would like to come up and do a selfie, we'd love to do it. Anybody want to do that?


DETROW: Scott Detrow, NPR News, Carson City, Nev.


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Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.