Campaigns

Georgia Democrat dramatizes message on health care — by giving up her own

Nabilah Islam cancels her health insurance to help cover living expenses while she runs for Congress

Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., narrowly won his seat in 2018 but is not running again. One Democrat seeking the nomination to succeed him is going without health insurance to dramatize the burden working families face. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A Georgia Democrat in one of the most competitive House districts in the country is canceling her health insurance, a risky move that she says is  financially necessary as she runs for Congress.

Nabilah Islam is one of a handful of Democrats running for the party’s nomination in the open 7th District. Islam is trying to save money, but she’s also making a political point — about who can afford to run for Congress and the necessity of fixing America’s health care system.

“Running for Congress is cost prohibitive,” Islam told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday. 

With voters continuing to rank health care a top priority, it may be a politically expedient decision too, especially for a candidate who’s been outraised in her primary and is trying to drum up attention. Islam, the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, spoke publicly about her decision in a video she posted to Twitter on Tuesday afternoon. 

GOP Rep. Rob Woodall, who held on in a recount last fall with the narrowest margin of any House race in the country, is not running for reelection in 2020. And the open seat, which President Donald Trump carried by 6 points in 2016, is part of the demographically changing Atlanta metro area — just the kind of district Democrats hope is ripe for the picking in 2020. 

Democrats insist that their health care message helped them win control of the House in 2018, and it’s the message many of them are sticking with heading into 2020, despite impeachment hearings dominating the news. (Islam has been out front on that issue and called for impeachment proceedings back in May, well before a critical mass of House Democrats took that approach.)

Islam, who supports “Medicare for All,” is currently insured through First Health Network in a plan that charges a $25 copay for up to five in-network primary, specialist and urgent care visits a year. Her prescription plan covers 20 percent of the cost of generic drugs only, and for only 12 prescriptions a year.

The Democratic activist calls it a “junk plan” that wouldn’t cover an ambulance or hospitalization if she were hit by a tree while canvassing. So she’s letting it lapse as of Dec. 31 and will join the ranks of Georgians who don’t have coverage. About 14 percent of the 7th District population doesn’t have health insurance, according to the Census Bureau

Islam’s current plan is costing her about $120 a month, money she says she needs to cover her own living expenses as she campaigns for Congress. She’s also putting her student loans in forbearance — meaning she doesn’t have to pay them right now but she’ll have to pay them back later, with more interest. She estimates that will save her about $300 per month right now but will eventually add an additional $3,000 to her $28,000 pile of debt. 

Islam last worked full time in January as a self-employed political consultant. Before that she was Southern regional finance director for the Democratic National Committee and previously worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and Jason Carter’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign. When she launched her own campaign in February, she thought she’d pick up a part-time job during the campaign. But it would have been too much to juggle.

“In order to give my district a voice they deserve, I have to run full time,” she said.

Candidates who are not incumbents can pay themselves a salary from their principal campaign committee. It must be the lesser of either the salary of the federal office they’re seeking or what they earned in income the previous year, according to the Federal Election Commission

But Islam says she doesn’t intend to do that because she wants all the money raised to go toward the campaign. So for now, that means she’s stretched financially for food and gas. She’s paying $900 in rent each month for an apartment. 

“I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ramen,” Islam said. “It kinda feels like I’m in college.”

Her situation, she said, shows why Congress does not have the same economic diversity as the rest of the country. 

“Everyday people don’t run for Congress,” she said.

Two-fifths of senators and representatives in the 115th Congress were millionaires, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis from 2018. Almost a quarter of voting members had a negative net worth, however. 

Student loan debt isn’t unheard-of in Congress either. In the 116th Congress, 13 percent of lawmakers reported that either they or their family members had student loan debt. The average was $37,000.

Islam had raised $313,000 for the race by the end of September. She’s hired two full-time campaign staffers, both of whom receive a monthly stipend that they can use to pay for health care plans through the exchanges set up by the 2010 health care law.

Her fundraising put her behind professor Carolyn Bourdeaux, who lost last year’s race to Woodall by just 433 votes. Bourdeaux had raised more than $1 million for the 2020 cycle by the end of September. Neither candidate is taking corporate PAC money.

Paul Fontelo contributed to this report. 

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