Health care a top issue in New Mexico race for U.S. Senate seat

September 17, 2018

Health care reform may have galvanized the tea party movement eight years ago and contributed to a wave of Republican victories. But now Democrats in congressional races around the country are hoping the issue will rally voters to their side.

For proof, just turn on the television in New Mexico.

Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich’s re-election campaign came out with a new ad last week pledging to expand health care coverage and protect Social Security.

The ad comes as Heinrich heads into the last couple of months of a race that was quiet until former Gov. Gary Johnson dove in as a Libertarian, turning the contest on its head.

Johnson has staked positions on issues such as immigration and drug reform that may appeal to some left-leaning voters. And the Affordable Care Act, which Heinrich supported, is hardly universally popular. But Heinrich is sticking to bread-and-butter issues such as health care and Social Security that many in the Democratic Party hope will shore up its base while attracting independents.

Heinrich does not mention his opponents in the 30-second spot, which features him speaking to an audience from the back of a pickup. But he takes a swipe at arguments against Democratic proposals for expanding health care coverage.

“The biggest con out there is politicians who claim we can’t afford to lower the cost of health care or help our seniors retire with dignity. But then they hand billions in tax breaks to corporations,” he says.

The senator also wrote in an email to supporters that Johnson and Republican nominee Mick Rich are “so extreme that they’d proudly stand with the Trump administration to roll back health care access so they can provide tax breaks to billionaires and special interests, all while claiming that we can’t afford to invest in health care.”

Heinrich has signed on as a cosponsor to several Democratic proposals for expanding government health insurance programs. For example, he cosponsored the Choose Medicare Act. The bill would allow anyone who is not now eligible for Medicaid or Medicare to enroll in Medicare.

He also was a cosponsor of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All Act of 2017, which would establish a federally administered national health insurance program. And Heinrich backed another bill last year that would allow those not already eligible for Medicaid to buy into a state Medicaid plan.

Progressives criticized the senator last year, however, after he voted against a measure by Sanders that would have allowed for the import of less-expensive prescription drugs from Canada — a proposal long opposed by the pharmaceutical industry. The measure failed on a narrow vote. Heinrich later sponsored another prescription drug bill with Sanders.

Conservatives argue that proposals such as the Choose Medicare Act would prove costly and ultimately leave consumers with fewer choices. And even after the Affordable Care Act’s rollout, cost and bureaucracy are still a source of frustration for many.

Rich says the Affordable Care Act has failed to deliver on its promise of providing affordable health insurance. He supports allowing insurance companies to sell plans across state lines. And he says the federal government should not dictate what benefits plans must provide, a provision known as essential health benefits.

This provision is cheered by the act’s proponents as ensuring a minimum of coverage but criticized by conservatives as driving up premiums.

“Mick 100 percent supports affordable, accessible health care for all New Mexicans. But he believe the way to do that is to let people decide for themselves — not the federal government — what health care benefits they want to buy from a marketplace of national insurance providers,” said Nathan James, a campaign spokesman.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s campaign called Heinrich’s claims “boilerplate, Democratic status quo rhetoric.”

Johnson would prefer to give states more flexibility with federal funding to address health care, spokesman Joe Hunter said.

It’s not about expanding or not expanding health care programs, Hunter said. Instead, he said, the question is how to “change the programs so you are not bankrupting the system.”

“Governors have experience doing that, unlike members of Congress,” Hunter added.

Still, the issue could be a boon for Heinrich. More than a quarter-million New Mexicans have health insurance coverage through the state’s expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

“No one doubts what expanding Medicaid did for New Mexico,” says Barbara Webber, executive director of the advocacy group Health Action New Mexico.

Public opinion on the act has flipped, too. More Americans have come to view the law favorably, according to polls by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The foundation also has found growing support in recent years for a single-payer or national health plan.

Polls also show health care ranking as a priority not just for the Democratic Party’s base but for independent voters, too.

But Webber says the Affordable Care Act is facing a series of attacks from the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress.

In turn, Democrats have been campaigning on the the law, Medicare for all and protections for pre-existing medical conditions in congressional races around the country.

The Cook Political Report found last month that Democrats in congressional races aired far more ads on health care than on any other issue. And that is a theme that will likely hold until Election Day on Nov. 6.

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