WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 16: Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) asks a question during a Judiciary Committee hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on June 16, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images
North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis — viewed as one of the most vulnerable GOP senators in 2020 — has found himself in an uncomfortable situation after a staffer's excessively honest comments to a constituent were caught on tape.
As first reported by WRAL, Bev Veals of Carolina Beach, a three-time cancer survivor, called her senator out of fear that her health insurance was at risk. She has previously faced medical bankruptcy and difficulty accessing care, WRAL said, and her husband was furloughed because of the pandemic. She wanted assurance that she'd have coverage if she lost her health insurance.
But Tillis's office wasn't helpful. While speaking to a dismissive staffer, Veals began to record their conversation, which was provided to WRAL and can be viewed above.
"You're saying that, if you can't afford it, you don't get to have it?" she asked. "That includes health care?"
"Yeah, just like if I want to go to the store and buy a new dress shirt. If I can't afford that dress shirt, I don't get to get it," the staffer explained.
"But health care is something that people need!" Veals said, clearly alarmed. "Especially if they have cancer."
"Well, you got to find a way to get it," the staffer said.
"So what do I do in the meantime, sir?" she asked, not hiding the irritation in her voice.
The response was snide: "Sounds like something you're going to have to figure it out."
Tillis's office has apologized after Veals came forward about the exchange: "The way Mrs. Veals was talked to by a staff assistant in our Washington office was completely inappropriate and violates the code of conduct Senator Tillis has for his staff, which is why immediate disciplinary action has been taken."
But the truth is that, insensitive and rude as the staffer's comments to Veals were, they were simply a much more honest reflection of the Republican Party's policies on health care than officials typically admit. But the truth isn't hard to see. The Trump administration is currently arguing that the Supreme Court should overturn all of Obamacare, throwing millions of people off their insurance and invalidating protections for pre-existing conditions, along with other provisions that protect patients.
The unofficial Republican Party policy, though, is to lie about this fact. Trump is constantly telling voters that he protected pre-existing conditions — even though he has done nothing to ensure they're covered — and that he'll continue to keep these protections in place, even though he's trying to destroy them.
The Tillis staffer, apparently, didn't get the message. He has imbibed the attitude at the heart of the GOP's policy preferences. His mistake was being honest with a member of the public about the policy.
Veals, for one, doesn't seem deceived by the office's apology. And that's because she still hasn't gotten the original answer to the question she called about.
"We need our legislators to listen to us and help us solve this problem because it's not just my problem – not being able to afford health care," she told WRAL. "It's the problem of hundreds and thousands of North Carolinians."
North Carolina is one of 12 states in the U.S. that has not adopted Medicaid expansion, a policy that would help cover people like Veals if they lost their insurance. Tillis opposes Medicaid expansion.
In a statement to WRAL, Tillis dishonestly defended his position:
"When he was Speaker of the House [in North Carolina]," the statement continues, "Senator Tillis inherited a Medicaid program that was mismanaged and plagued with overspending and inefficiency. Expanding Medicaid at the time would have been a promise that the state wouldn't have been able to keep, requiring cuts to the program that would have harmed patients that states like New York and California have already been forced to make. Instead, Senator Tillis worked to strengthen the state's Medicaid program to deliver quality health care to patients, and the reason the North Carolina is in a position to discuss expansion is because of Senator Tillis' leadership."
These claims are in spectacularly bad faith. Medicaid expansion has been wildly successful across the United States — it can even save states money. And claiming to be concerned about "cuts to the program" that harm patients is absurd when patients like Veals can be left with no coverage at all. It's even more pernicious, though, because the recent stressed on state budgets in the wake of the pandemic come from the Senate Republicans' refusal to provide recovery funds to state and local governments, as Democrats have sought to do.
It's these comments — far more than a staffer's rudeness — that should be the real scandal.