Vicki Yates Brown Glisson (left) and Congressman John Yarmuth (right) debated at the Louisville Forum Wednesday afternoon. | Photo by Joe Sonka

Six-term Congressman John Yarmuth and his Republican challenger Vicki Yates Brown Glisson faced off in their first debate of the campaign Wednesday afternoon at the Louisville Forum, where the two showed their major policy differences when it comes to health care.

Glisson, who served as the secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services in the administration of Gov. Matt Bevin until announcing her run for Congress in January, sought to label Yarmuth as “one of the architects of the Affordable Care Act” — a label that Yarmuth embraced.

“I’m very proud of the fact that in today’s world there are 130 million Americans with pre-existing conditions that don’t have to worry about being able to get insurance,” said Yarmuth. “I’m very proud of the fact that 90,000 Louisvillians now have coverage that didn’t have coverage before. I’m very proud of the fact that young people can stay on their parents’ insurance policies until they’re 26.”

Yarmuth added that he is also proud that the ACA ended lifetime and annual limits on benefits, in which “a cancer diagnosis or a serious accident ends up bankrupting a family.”

Likewise, Yarmuth sought to highlight Glisson’s role in the Bevin administration in crafting its Medicaid 1115 waiver plan, which included premium payments and work requirements that could lock out recipients and estimated that the state’s Medicaid rolls would decrease by 95,000.

Glisson defended the Bevin administration’s waiver — currently on hold due to a federal court order — criticizing the ACA as putting states in a difficult financial position once federal subsidies decrease to cover 90 percent of this expanded population’s costs — or as she put it, “run out.”

While some health care advocates fear that Kentucky’s proposal could lead to hundreds of thousands being dropped from Medicaid coverage — citing the example of the new waiver plan in Arkansas — Glisson said that these 95,000 individuals will instead voluntarily choose to leave Medicaid for private insurance, as “no one is going to lose their benefits.”

“No one lost their benefits under this waiver,” said Glisson. “In fact, the waiver still hasn’t been implemented. But if it had been, no one would be losing benefits.”

As for the current flaws with the ACA, Yarmuth laid the blame at the feet of Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration who “have done everything they could to sabotage the ACA” instead of fixing parts that need repair.

“What happened over the last eight years, Republicans in Congress voted 75 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act with no alternative, no replacement,” said Yarmuth. “They scream ‘repeal and replace,’ but there was never a replacement. That’s the same criticism we’re hearing from Vicki today.”

Vickie Yates Brown Glisson | Photo via Glisson for Congress

Glisson accused Yarmuth — just as she does in a television ad released Wednesday morning — of supporting a “complete government takeover of health care” that is advocated by Sen. Bernie Sanders and a conservative group estimated would cost $32 trillion over 10 years.

While Yarmuth said he does support a “Medicare for All” plan, he noted that he has long criticized and not supported Sanders’ plan, which “is unlimited health care for everybody, whatever they want, with no costs. I don’t think that would work.”

“What I support is a system similar to where we are now, phased in,” said Yarmuth. “First, we take in people 55 to 65, and then gradually expand it to the general population. This is doable. I think it’s affordable.”

Yarmuth noted that if he is re-elected and the Democrats take back the majority in the House, he will become the new chairman of the House Budget Committee, where he plans to “have hearings on the whole concept of Medicare for All to see exactly what the impact on the budget would be and whether it is affordable or not. I think that’s a conversation this country needs to have.”

Glisson also asserted that Yarmuth’s health care plan would drive Humana — which employs over 12,000 people in Louisville — out of business, but he countered that Humana’s business and worth has actually thrived through administering Medicare and government health care since the passage of the ACA.

“If we do Medicare for All, the government is not going to administer all of Medicare for 300 million or more people. They will look to a company like Humana to administer it,” said Yarmuth. “And by the way, Humana’s stock was $50 a share the day we passed the Affordable Care Act and it’s now $325. The Affordable Care Act has been pretty damned good for Humana.”

Tax Cuts

Both candidates were asked about the U.S. Treasury Department’s announcement this week that the federal government recorded a $113 billion increase in the deficit during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, and if this was caused by the massive tax cut bill passed last December or entitlement spending.

Congressman John Yarmuth

Yarmuth laid the blame directly on the tax cuts — which the Congressional Budget Office projected would increase the deficit by $1.9 trillion over the next 10 years — highlighting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comment on Tuesday floating the possibility of cutting entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to address the increase in the deficit.

“There’s $92 billion less in corporate revenue coming into the Treasury this year compared to over last year, and the increase in the deficit is $113 billion,” said Yarmuth. “So yes, the tax cuts were predominantly responsible for the added deficit. That deficit is going to exceed $1 trillion in a couple of years. A lot of that is due to the tax cuts.”

Glisson disagreed, lauding the tax cuts as the reason for the increase in economic growth and the historically low unemployment rate, saying that people in Louisville have told her how upset they are that Yarmuth strongly criticized the bill on the House floor.

“As I’ve gone out in this community,” said Glisson, “I hear resounding support for the tax cuts. I can tell you that folks are really upset when they talk about the fact that our congressman stood on the floor of the House and called it a sham and a horror show.”

Yarmuth countered that he called it a scam, not a sham.

“There’s a huge difference,” said Yarmuth. “The reason I used scam is because what the Republican tax cut did was give middle class America a little break — I strongly support that, most Democrats did — and they made that temporary. They made the huge tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest American permanent. That’s the scam.”

Gun Control

On the issue of gun control, Glisson said that she is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, but “I also think we need to have reasonable measures in place that just make sure that appropriate folks have firearms in their possession. So we start with things like background checks.”

Glisson added that there should also be a mental health component to background checks for gun purchases, in addition to “gun access restraining orders” that could be issued by judges if someone is detected to exhibit “erratic behavior.”

Yarmuth replied by noting the policies Glisson was describing don’t line up with the A rating she received from the National Rifle Association this week in response to her answers on their policy questionnaire.

“I’m just curious as to how you got an A from the NRA, because much of what she said I agree with,” said Yarmuth. “I got an F (from the NRA). I’m proud of it.”

As is customary for Yarmuth, the congressman wore an “F” pin on his lapel, denoting that F rating from the NRA.

Immigration

Glisson said that she was against the abolishment of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), saying that she supports the agency and their work.

Yarmuth also said that he was against the abolishment of the federal immigration enforcement agency — which many liberal Democrats support — but said that he wanted “strong oversight” over the agency due to documented abuses against immigrants and what he viewed as dishonest statements made to him by its leadership.

The congressman added that comprehensive immigration reform is needed, saying that many of the problems of the past few years could have been avoided had House leadership allowed a vote on the legislation he helped craft with the “Gang of Eight” in that chamber in 2013 — giving many undocumented immigrants a path to gain legal status and citizenship, as well as increase border security.

Glisson added that she is in favor of giving DACA recipients — young undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children by their parents — “a pathway to citizenship.”

Marijuana

Asked if they support legalizing marijuana, both congressional candidates said that decision should be left up to the states, but Yarmuth went further by saying that he would support such a measure if it was on the ballot in Kentucky.

Yarmuth added that marijuana needs to be rescheduled by the federal government so that it is no longer in the same category of drugs such as heroin, but Glisson disagreed, saying that it should remain as a Schedule 1 drug.

Impeachment and Bipartisanship

On the question of impeaching President Donald Trump, Yarmuth said he believes that the president “has committed impeachable offenses,” but said impeachment proceedings should only go forward and would only be viewed as legitimate if it is undertaken as a bipartisan effort.

In her opening remarks, Glisson she is running to provide “bipartisan leadership” for Louisville in Congress, calling Yarmuth “hyperpartisan,” “toxic” and “a career politician.” She added that “we don’t need somebody who is constantly criticizing or divisive.”

As for Trump and Bevin — both largely unpopular in the overwhelmingly Democratic city and district — Glisson said that Yarmuth “seems to be trying to make this race about Trump and Bevin,” but that “I’m not these folks. I’m my own individual. I’m an independent voice.”

Yarmuth opened the forum by noting that he didn’t think he would still be running for Congress in 2018 when he first ran in 2006 in opposition to the policies of George W. Bush, but he finds that “the stakes are much higher” right now under Trump, which is why he feels an obligation to keep going and help win back the House for Democrats.

“I’m not given to hyperbole, but I am more afraid for the sustainability of our democracy today than I have ever been in my life,” said Yarmuth. “We have an administration in Washington that on a daily basis undermines the very foundations of our democracy.”

In their second and final debate on Wednesday evening, Glisson denounced Yarmuth for saying that Trump deserves to be impeached, calling that an example of partisanship that will hurt Louisville.

Yarmuth countered by saying that in the eight and a half months that Glisson has been a candidate in the race, she has never criticized Trump a single time, as she is “in lock step” with him.

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]