Health care dominates 5th District forum

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by Gregory A. Summers and Kali Coleman

COLUMBIA – With the congressional special election only days away, four of the candidates appeared Friday in an SCETV forum that focused mostly on their differences over fixing or replacing Obamacare.

Republican Ralph Norman, who had skipped three recent joint appearances with the other candidates, appeared along with Democrat Archie Parnell, Green Party candidate David Kulma and Josh Thornton of the American Party. Libertarian Victor Kocher did not attend.

Voters will choose among the five in Tuesday’s special election to fill the U.S. House District 5 seat, which Mick Mulvaney vacated in February to become White House budget director.

The forum was taped Thursday and aired at 7:30 p.m. Friday night on SCETV. The half-hour segment was more a brisk policy discussion than a hard-elbowed debate, though Parnell took a swipe at Norman, the frontrunner in the GOP-dominated district, in his opening remarks.

Parnell questioned the voting record and “extreme issues” of Norman, a former member of the S.C. House.

“He’s insulted police officers by saying post traumatic disorder is not a problem, and that’s completely wrong,” Parnell said.

Norman did not respond, and the forum quickly moved on to other topics, most prominently what to do about the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

To fix or replace

Parnell called affordable health care a core concern for 5th District residents, noting that if elected, he intends to fight for the importation of low-cost prescription drugs.

“You can import this shirt from countries outside the United States,” Parnell said. “Likewise, we should be able to import drugs from outside of the United States, as long as they’re safely manufactured, they’re FDA-approved and you have a doctor’s prescription.”

Norman said in the last seven to eight years, Democrats have caused many Obamacare coverage providers to leave the network. He called it a “complicated issue.”

“I want to bring in the free-market principles,” Norman said. “I want to be able to buy insurance across state lines. I want to have expanded HSAs (health saving accounts). I want doctors to be able to want to come and to practice medicine. They’re getting out. We’re going to have a doctor shortage if the problems continue.”

Kulma said health care should be a guaranteed “human right.”

He noted that Rep. John Conyers of Michigan has introduced a Medicare For All bill in every session of Congress since 2003. Kulma said the bill has more than 100 Democratic co-sponsors.

“I would be a co-sponsor of this bill,” Kulma said. “What it does is expand and improve our Medicare system so that there is no co-pays, no deductibles and no premiums.”

Thornton said the “vehicle” used to supply health care isn’t as important as making sure that “it’s affordable, efficient and available.”

“If we can fix the efficient part of Medicare For All – you know that’s the biggest complaint you hear from other countries is that they have to wait for certain procedures for too long. If we can fix that, I don’t see anything wrong with it,” Thornton said, also claiming he would favor Obamacare if it could be made more affordable.

Single-payer plans

When Parnell sidestepped a question on single-payer health care programs such as Medicare, Kulma pressed him on the matter.

Parnell then explained: “Our proposal for that is to actually have a default plan so that people are automatically in an insurance plan and they can opt out of it, rather than our current system which is people opt into insurance and if they don’t, there’s a tax penalty.”

Kulma pushed Parnell to answer “yes or no” on whether he would join “the more than 100” Democrats in the House backing the single-payer system.

Parnell did not, but answered by saying he had another plan, which was to amend Obamacare.

The candidates also discussed pre-existing medical conditions in health-care coverage.

“The one thing about the Republican health-care plan that has passed the House is it would punt pre-existing conditions back to the states, and we know how this state of South Carolina handled Medicaid recently,” Parnell said.

Thornton said the Republican plan also “gives employers a chance to opt out for those that have pre-existing conditions.”

Norman remains adamant that the private sector – and not government – should be directly involved in solving the health-care puzzle.

“I disagree with the other three. Big government is not the answer,” Norman said. “Government is not the answer, too.”

When forum moderator Charles Bierbauer said the Republican Party’s plan has been “more repeal so far than replace,” Norman blamed that on the two major parties not coming together to reach consensus.

“What I will be committed to is not having gridlock on health care. People have got to have it,” Norman said.

Needs in the district

With a diverse district in the central part of the state that stretches from the North Carolina border to the Midlands, the needs are many.

The district includes all or parts of Lancaster, Cherokee, Chester, Fairfield, Kershaw, Lee, Newberry, Spartanburg, Sumter, Union and York counties.

Parnell said the top issue is higher-paying jobs. “We need to bring the economy up,” he said.    

Thornton said progress hinges on a combination of preventative health care and education. Not everyone, he said, is prepared for or meant to go to college.

“We need to give them vocational opportunities and technical opportunities to start filling these jobs that might or might not come,” Thornton said. “Right now, we don’t have enough skilled labor to fill the jobs we actually have in this country.”

Norman said there must be a balance between high-paying, quality jobs and “giving the state away” through tax incentives. That’s where he said his background as a small-business owner is an asset. 

“The basic things they want is what people need,” he said. “They want regulations off their backs, and that’s where I come in.”

Kulma said the need for affordable, sustainable housing is seldom mentioned or addressed.

People who earn minimum wage cannot afford to pay average housing costs. One Rock Hill resident who lives on a fixed income, he said, shuts off all her appliances every night just to be able to afford to stay in her apartment.       

“They’re paying too much of their income in housing,” he said.

The polls will be open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The Lancaster News will track the results and post them at www.thelancasternews.com as they become available.