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Health Care Questions Enter Virginia Governor's Race


Republicans in Congress are worried about the political consequences of their proposed health care legislation, but they aren't the only ones. The Republican running for governor of Virginia is now facing lots of questions about health care, too. Here's NPR's Sarah McCammon.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: A barbershop in downtown Richmond was the setting for a forum on opioid addiction hosted by a local radio station Friday night. Republican candidate Ed Gillespie, who's white, addressed a mostly black audience sitting on sofas in salon chairs in a small upstairs loft as men sat for haircuts and beard trims below. Gillespie promised to look for bipartisan solutions to the addiction crisis facing the country.

ED GILLESPIE: I am constantly listening, always looking for new ideas and always looking for them everywhere.

MCCAMMON: Gillespie is running in one of the few high-profile races of 2017. In the governor's race, he's up against Virginia's lieutenant governor, Democrat Ralph Northam. Gillespie won last month's Republican primary by just a few thousand votes, beating back a surprisingly strong challenger who'd styled himself after President Trump.

He's now trying to appeal to moderates as well as conservatives in a state that's become increasingly friendly to Democrats over the past couple of decades. As he was wrapping up his remarks, a woman stepped forward to ask Gillespie about the health care bills before Congress. Lawmakers are still negotiating how to fund treatment for opioid addiction.

GILLESPIE: I look forward to following up. Thank you for letting me join you here this evening.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Sorry, do you support Donald Trump's health care repeal, then? Because it guts funding for opioid and addiction problems.

GILLESPIE: A lot of my friends are working to get that fixed.

MCCAMMON: The woman followed up before being cut off by the moderators. The Republicans nationally campaigned on repealing the Affordable Care Act in 2016. Gillespie has been met with pushback on the idea from Virginia voters at campaign events across the state. He's repeatedly responded by outlining goals like reducing premiums and making sure Virginia doesn't lose out on federal funding because of its refusal to expand Medicaid under Obamacare.

On Thursday night, Susan Mariner of Virginia Beach was among several protesters who stood outside a Gillespie fundraiser in Norfolk. She says she's concerned about government estimates that millions of people will lose insurance under the Republican proposals.

SUSAN MARINER: I think that's unconscionable. And I absolutely want Gillespie to come out and let me know how he stands on this issue. I think that voters need to understand where he stands.

MCCAMMON: At a press conference last week, Democrat Ralph Northam, himself a physician, called on Gillespie to denounce the repeal effort.


RALPH NORTHAM: It is devastating for the Commonwealth of Virginia. And if he's not willing to denounce the plan, I would ask, why does he support the current plan?

MCCAMMON: Northam says the Republican plans would cost Virginia more than a billion dollars in lost Medicaid funds over the next decade. Outside the barbershop in Richmond, Gillespie criticized Northam, who said the Affordable Care Act needs improvement, for supporting a system that Gillespie says isn't working. Asked by reporters about the proposals before Congress, he declined to take a position.

GILLESPIE: And we don't know what's in the bill before the Senate right now. Senators don't know what's in the bill before the Senate right now. They're in recess, trying to rework it. So we'll see what comes out.

MCCAMMON: Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, says the sooner the health care debate is over, the better for Ed Gillespie.

STEPHEN FARNSWORTH: It's very difficult for any politician to support a plan that takes something away from people.

MCCAMMON: With Republicans in control of Washington, he says, how they handle issues like health care will inevitably reflect on Republicans running for office back home. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "SPECTRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.

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