published Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

New health care law has little support at 3rd District candidate forum in Chattanooga (with video)


by Chris Carroll
Candidates Chuck Fleischmann, Weston Wamp, Bill Taylor, Scottie Mayfield, Ron Bhalla and Dr. Mary Headrick participate in a medical-themed forum Monday at Erlanger hospital among candidates for Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District race.
Candidates Chuck Fleischmann, Weston Wamp, Bill Taylor, Scottie Mayfield, Ron Bhalla and Dr. Mary Headrick participate in a medical-themed forum Monday at Erlanger hospital among candidates for Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District race.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
  • Candidates address health care
    In surprising bits of bipartisan agreement, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., and five challengers said they all support parts of President Barack Obama’s health care reform law at a forum tonight at Erlanger hospital.
Poll
Do you support the new health care law?
QUOTES

• Ron Bhalla, Republican

"Small businesses are going to get hurt because of the imposition of [health] insurance. ... A lot of people will be suffering."

• U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, Republican

"I ran on a pledge to [vote to] repeal the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as "Obamacare," with my very, very first vote in Congress. This week I have the opportunity to do that again, and I will vote to repeal that law again."

• Dr. Mary Headrick, Democrat

"This act is merely health insurance reform with an expansion of Medicaid and our subsidy program. It is not my first choice, but it is good as we can get in this dreadful political climate."

• Scottie Mayfield, Republican

"I think and I hope that we will repeal health care next week, and then when that happens, I want to work to have a program that keeps the patient and doctor relationship where it should be -- more of a free-enterprise approach."

• Bill Taylor, Democrat

"I am here to look for the middle ground. ... Taking the Affordable Care Act [and] changing some things that are in there that make it better to serve all Americans."

• Weston Wamp, Republican

"We're lying to you if we act like we've got all the answers. ... We can use free-market principles like we do in every other sector to lower costs and improve the quality of health care."

No 3rd Congressional District candidate, not even the two Democrats running for the seat, fully endorsed President Barack Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at a health care forum Monday night at Erlanger hospital.

Instead -- and despite the Supreme Court's favorable ruling on the constitutionality of the law -- U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., and a bipartisan panel of five challengers suggested immediate repeal or major modifications, saying 2010's Democratic-controlled Congress either overstepped its authority or didn't go far enough to treat the nation's uninsured.

"I would never dream of repealing something that has required so much to gain things like no exclusion for pre-existing illness," said Dr. Mary Headrick, a Democrat and acute care physician from Maynardville, Tenn.

Speaking to an audience comprised mostly of physicians with the Chattanooga and Hamilton County Medical Society and Medical Foundation, which sponsored the debate, Headrick was the only Democrat -- and candidate -- to push for a single-payer health system overall and a public option in upcoming state health insurance exchanges.

But the incumbent and his three Republican challengers, Ron Bhalla, Scottie Mayfield and Weston Wamp, mostly criticized the latest attempt at national health care reform as a federal takeover of private markets.

Fleischmann touted his largely symbolic 2011 House vote to repeal "Obamacare," and Mayfield flatly said he hopes "that we repeal health care [sic] next week" -- a near-impossibility considering a Democratic-controlled Senate.

"We'd be better off if we looked at health care services more like a product," Wamp said. "That's actually how we really can let competition be a powerful force within medicine."

The health care reform act requires that most Americans buy insurance. Bill Taylor, the Chattanooga Democrat in the race, was the only candidate to endorse that part of the law.

"Those of us that provide insurance for our employees should be protected from the risk of the emergency room visit for those that don't have it," said Taylor, who manages Physician Practice Resources, a management and consulting firm for medical doctors.

The Republican foursome said the federal government shouldn't force anyone to buy anything -- most of all, health insurance -- but Taylor pledged to work toward "the middle ground" in Congress, vowing to support the central tenets of the law, including an optional Medicaid expansion for states.

Fleischmann occasionally deflected questions and swiveled the discussion back to a topic of interest for doctors, praising medical malpractice reform and attacking "frivolous lawsuits" against doctors.

"When I have grandfathers who've been doctors ... telling their grandchildren, 'Don't go into medicine,' I want to make it so that smart people go into this great profession," Fleisch-mann said.

Monday marked the first time all six 3rd District Democrats and Republicans found themselves on the same stage. It also was Mayfield's first time to debate his opponents after declining three previous forums, but the other Republicans refrained from bashing Mayfield's prior reluctance to debate, as they've done at other events.

That happened partly because of how organizers structured Monday night's debate, discouraging conflict and encouraging direct answers to the question.

Asked why Mayfield decided to participate in this forum but not the others, spokesman Joe Hendrix offered this statement: "This is not a debate but a forum where the candidates have an opportunity to connect with the health care community instead of spending time attacking each other."

But at one point, Wamp tried to do just that, attacking Fleischmann and Mayfield for blaming Obama for the nation's health care problems without proposing any solutions themselves.

When a debate moderator asked if they wanted to respond to Wamp's critique, the congressman and Mayfield grinned and shook their heads.

The debate gave both Democrats in the race a chance to highlight their professions, as Headrick wore her white coat and Taylor slammed large insurers, saying "they're all about profit." Both said the Affordable Care Act should have included tougher regulation of the health insurance industry.

In a lighter moment, Headrick got some smiles when she described her son's recent graduation from medical school as a way she's personally supplying the community with additional doctors to treat newly insured patients.

Bhalla, as is becoming more common at debates, said he would email each bill to his constituents, "tally the majority" and vote accordingly on the House floor.

Only three weeks remain until the Aug. 2 primary elections, and Democrats find themselves in a deep fundraising hole. After updated numbers come out this week, Fleischmann, Mayfield and Wamp are expected to have at least $1 million combined, while Headrick and Taylor had little more than $8,000 between them in available campaign cash at the end of March.

Matthew Deniston, the lone independent in the race, was not at the forum. Organizers said they were unable to contact him.

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6610.

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