KINGSTON, N.Y. — When Republicans tried to repeal the 2010 health care law last year, Democrats knew they had an issue that would define this election cycle. A year and a half later, health care is still dominating Democratic messaging.
Take New York’s 19th District, which stretches where GOP freshman John J. Faso faces Democratic lawyer Antonio Delgado.
“Everywhere I travel across this district, and it’s big, there’s no doubt that health care is the most important issue on people’s minds,” Delgado said at a recent candidate forum here in the sprawling upstate district. “We’re in crisis.”
Delgado and his Democratic allies have not held back in attacking Faso for his vote last year for the GOP bill to repeal much of the health care law. Faso said he is working to set the record straight, emphasizing that he supports bipartisan proposals and protecting people with pre-existing conditions.
But the question for Delgado and Faso — and candidates across the country — is which side will voters determine has their best interests at heart when it comes to protecting health care coverage and addressing exorbitant costs.
Back in the 19th District, Kathleen Hayek, chairwoman of the Delaware County Democratic Committee, said people in the rural parts like hers struggle to access health care services and afford high premiums.
A combination of people relying on Medicare and Medicaid, limited access in rural areas and the opioid epidemic keeps health care top of mind for many in the district, Delgado said.
As in other races, the GOP attempt to repeal much of health care law energized voters who were concerned about its impact. Faso and most other Republicans voted for the proposal, known as the American Health Care Act, which died in the Senate.
An estimated 35,200 people could lose coverage in Faso’s district under the GOP plan, according to an analysis by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, based on estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.
“That [vote] was what galvanized the district,” said Gareth Rhodes, who lost to Delgado in the June Democratic primary. Protesters who gather outside Faso’s office here each week still care health care-related signs.
But not everyone agrees health care costs and coverage are the top issues.
Rhinebeck GOP Committee Chairman Bruce Washbern noted the area has lost jobs and population.
“The economy takes care of all the benefits one way or another,” he said last month at Faso’s campaign office opening in Hyde Park. “So the economy is really the No. 1 issue.”
Democrats on offense
Democrats have a different weapon to use against Faso on health care: video footage of him promising to protect a constituent with a brain tumor.
“Have you heard about Andrea Mitchell?” Delgado asked a crowd of Democrats at a meet-and-greet in Bovina late last month.
In January 2017, Mitchell attended a health care protest outside Faso’s office that moved to his home. Mitchell said Faso was “kind and gracious,” answering a range of the demonstrator’ questions.
Then she decided to speak up and told Faso, “I have a brain tumor and a spinal condition. And when I was first diagnosed I was kicked off my insurance because pre-existing conditions were out. … I need you as a human being to say, ‘I promise that we will not take this away from you.’”
Faso then embraced Mitchell and said, “I promise, I promise, I promise.”
Mitchell said she believed Faso was genuinely moved and was disappointed when he voted for the GOP bill. The measure technically still barred insurance companies from denying coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. But analysts noted the legislation made some changes to the health care law that would have raised costs for people with pre-existing conditions.
The video, which garnered national attention, thrust Mitchell into the spotlight. She said she is often approached in the district by people who want to share their own health care stories. She met personally with each of the seven Democratic candidates running in the primary, before she backed Delgado, appearing in a television ad with him.
The ad is still on the airwaves, according to Delgado’s campaign. His ad and a TV spot from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee feature the footage of Faso and Mitchell.
Another two of Delgado’s four ads currently on air focus solely on health care, with one citing an AARP finding that the GOP bill would have raised costs for seniors — which critics have said amounts to an “age tax.” House Majority PAC, a super PAC tied to the chamber’s Democratic leadership, is also currently airing a radio ad that references Faso’s health care vote.
Faso said he’s working to correct the record, saying the Democratic attacks are “not being truthful about what was in that bill.”
“I think they have a cookie-cutter approach coming from Washington that cannot be sustained against a strong rebuttal,” he said in a recent interview after visiting seniors in Poughquag.
His campaign noted in a press release that claims that the GOP bill would eliminate protections for everyone with pre-existing conditions were not true, according to The Washington Post fact checker. (A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis did find that the GOP bill would have raised health care costs for more than 6 million people with pre-existing conditions).
On the so-called age tax, Faso’s team pointed to an Empire Center analysis that notes New York already has a state rule that bars insurance rates based on age.
Faso also said Mitchell would not have been affected by the GOP bill because she relies on Medicaid, and does not have insurance through the individual market. Medicaid coverage is based on income level, not information about one’s health, he pointed out.
Mitchell countered that Faso wouldn’t have known what would be in the GOP bill at the time she confronted him. She is still not sure if she would be affected by potential Medicaid cuts if the bill became law.
“He has no access to my income or knowing if I would be cut or not,” she said of the congressman. “I don’t know if I would be cut or not.”
On Sunday, Faso launched an ad of his own featuring his wife, Mary Fran, recounting her battle with cancer.
“John knows first-hand how important health care is for families,” she says to the camera. “The truth is he voted to guarantee coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, and to protect seniors on Medicare. That’s the man I know.”
Faso has also gone after Delgado’s health care position, saying at the candidate forum here last month that this opponent’s ultimate goal was a government-run health care system.
Delgado supports adding Medicare as a public option and allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.
Asked about Faso’s criticism, he said, “I wish he would just address my proposal. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
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