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SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY – The California Democrats who fought to flip Republican congressional seats in 2018 used health care as their crowbar. The Republicans had just voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act in the U.S. House — and Democrats didn’t let voters forget it.
Two years later, Democrats are defending the seven seats they flipped from red to blue in California. And once again, they plan to go after their Republican opponents on health care in this year’s elections.
But this time around, it’s not just about the Affordable Care Act, whose fate now rests with the federal courts. Democrats are highlighting the high costs of prescription drugs, surprise medical bills and cuts to safety-net programs.
Health care “remains the single-biggest priority for most voters in 2020,” said U.S. Rep. Josh Harder, a Democrat who represents California’s 10th congressional district, in the northern San Joaquin Valley, which includes the cities of Modesto, Turlock, Tracy and Manteca.
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Harder, who defeated Republican Jeff Denham in 2018, made the case then that eliminating the federal health law and its protections for people with preexisting conditions would harm thousands of people in his district, including his younger brother, whose premature birth yielded $2 million in hospital bills.
Health care affordability — from drug costs to premiums — is still the No. 1 issue his constituents raise in conversations with him, he said.
“The problems haven’t been solved,” said Harder, who blamed the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate for stalling on health care legislation addressing prescription and other health care costs. “A lot of folks out here feel like there’s still an unbelievably long period before they can see a doctor, and they think that the costs are way too high.”
Multiple calls and emails to Republican congressional candidates and the California Republican Party requesting comment were not returned. California voters will select their party’s congressional candidates in the Super Tuesday primary March 3.
Health care is indeed a top issue for voters, confirmed Mollyann Brodie, executive director of public opinion and survey research for the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“What concerns people the most is health care costs and their own affordability of health care,” Brodie said. “And when we asked people what they thought Congress should be working on, prescription drug costs came right on top.”
A national Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll from September 2019 found that 81% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans surveyed said lowering prescription drug costs should be a top priority for Congress. Voters in both parties also want Congress to maintain protections for people with preexisting conditions and limit surprise medical bills.
Both Democratic and Republican candidates are taking note and are likely to feature health care prominently in their campaigns, but their messages will be different, said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, a campaign analysis site.
For example, progressive Democrats often advocate for “Medicare for All,” a national health care program that would cover everyone in the U.S.
Republicans oppose this idea fervently.
“Republicans will talk about a government takeover of health care, socialism, Democratic efforts to get rid of private health insurance and the cost of Democratic plans,” Gonzales said.
Ted Howze, one of three Republicans gunning in the primary to replace Harder, fits this description. He is running for Congress after “personally struggling with the failure of the health care system,” he said during a January debate in Modesto. His first wife died in 2013 from an undiagnosed heart condition “that could have been treated,” according to his campaign website.
Among his top three priorities, he said, is making quality health care affordable for all Americans. But he proposes to do so through the private market, not more government-run programs.
“I will support any plan that covers preexisting conditions and that increases transparency and competition to drive costs down,” he said during the debate.
In at least one California district, health care has popped up in campaign advertising.
Twelve candidates are vying for the 25th Congressional District seat, which includes portions of Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The seat was vacated by former U.S. Rep. Katie Hill, a Democrat who resigned in October.
Voters in that district will face a double election on March 3: The first is a special election for the remainder of Hill’s term, which runs through the end of this year. The second is the primary for the full 2021-23 congressional term.
Among the candidates is former U.S. Rep. Steve Knight, the Republican who lost his seat to Hill in 2018. After voting to repeal Obamacare in Congress, he introduced a bill that he argued would have protected people with preexisting conditions. His campaign did not return multiple calls and emails for comment.
State Assembly member Christy Smith, a Democrat who is running for the seat, shared a personal story about prescription drug costs in her first television ad.
Smith’s mom, a nurse, “died too young because she couldn’t afford the insulin to treat her diabetes and heart disease,” Smith says in the ad.
“My mom couldn’t afford the medicine and care she needed. I’m running for Congress to make sure you can.”
Another Democratic candidate, Cenk Uygur, co-founder of “The Young Turks,” a progressive YouTube news show, also made health care the topic of his first TV ad. Tens of thousands of people die every year because they don’t have health insurance, he says in the ad. “What if your own child was one of them?”
Democrats may find more health care fodder for their campaigns as the year progresses, said Ivy Cargile, an assistant professor of political science at California State University-Bakersfield.
For instance, she said, on Feb. 10 the Trump administration released its $4.8 trillion 2020 federal budget proposal, which includes deep cuts to Medicaid, the public health insurance program for low-income people.
Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program, has about 13 million enrollees. “Let’s assume this goes through,” she said. “That’s going to be fresh in the mind of voters going into the general election.”