Home 2020 Elections VA-05 Democratic Candidate Dr. Cameron Webb on COVID-19, Healthcare in America, the...

VA-05 Democratic Candidate Dr. Cameron Webb on COVID-19, Healthcare in America, the Climate Crisis, How He Thinks He Can Defeat Denver Riggleman in November

"If [Riggleman] is the nominee, I feel like we're in a really good position to flip this district in November"

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While most of our focus, for good reason, remains on the COVID-19 crisis, democracy and elections continue on in Virginia. For instance, in the 5th Congressional district, currently misrepresented by right-wingnut Rep. Denver Riggleman (R), four Democrats – RD Huffstetler, John Lesinski, Claire Russo and Dr. Cameron Webb – are vying for the nomination, to be decided in a June 9 primary, to try and defeat Riggleman. The Webb campaign reached out to me about doing an interview, focused on COVID-19, and I had a chance to him earlier this afternoon. It was an interesting conversation, and overall I was really impressed with Dr. Webb.  Here are some highlights from the interview, bolding added by me for emphasis. Enjoy! 🙂

  • As a doctor, what is Webb seeing with regard to the Coronavirus situation? He said he sees the crisis from the angle of being an internal medicine doctor and a hospitalist. He said he worked Friday through Sunday in the hospital, and that he’s seeing both an “increased number of Coronavirus cases” and an “even greater increase in the number of folks who are concerned they may have COVID-19.” You’re also seeing the response from front-line providers, folks bracing themselves for an increase in the number of cases and hoping we have the capacity in terms of physical space in the hospitals, testing, and PPE.
  • Webb said in the community more broadly, it’s a little more of a mixed bag in the “sprawling,” diverse 5th CD, which stretches from the North Carolina border to Fauquier County. You’ve got some places where “people are really hunkered down…worried,” and other places where it’s more like “business as usual, because they haven’t really had any cases, and folks are like hey, I don’t really know if it’s going to come down this way.”
  • We’re still “pretty early” in this crisis, but “no matter what, Coronavirus is king right now, it’s definitely the dominant conversation…and for good reason, it’s wreaking havoc on our health care systems and on the economy.
  • Are people in the 5th CD adhering to Gov. Northam’s stay-at-home order? Webb said he thinks the order made “a huge difference – I think when it was a suggestion for social distancing, you saw various levels of adherence from people across the district…now you felt the tenor change…people really rally[ing] around the idea of flattening the curve, now in a different way, and that’s part of why I’m really glad the governor did issue that order, because I think it sent the right message.”
  • Did making it a stay-at-home *order* vs. a suggestion make a difference? “I think it makes a difference…people can read the gravity of the situation based on how restrictive they’re being…Here, by making it a stay-at-home *order*, it makes people feel like their set point has to be different…intead of their regularly schedule life and then tweak it on the margins, now the set point is you’re at home unless you have to be somewhere else and that’s the rule. It taps into the consciousness a little differently for people.” Webb added that this phenomenon is not just in the 5th CD, it’s across Virginia. “It was the right move from a public health standpoint, it was the right move from a leadership standpoint and I’m really glad to see it.”
  • Should the government work more to educate people than to require people to stay at home, as some Republicans have argued? Webb said that they “probably don’t have the necessary appreciation for how this virus can spread really quickly and really devastate communities.” “We need to get in front of it, we can’t just be reactive; the way this virus spreads, once you’re being reactive, it’s too late…I hope before they make those comments, they’re consulting with some folks who have some public health or epidemiological expertise.” “What we’re trying to do is keep it from getting to an insurmountable level.”
  • How about the argument by some people that this is more of an urban problem rather than a rural problem? Webb said that “in rural spaces, a lot of the time people have less geographic proximity to a hospital, so that means additional challenges…and folks who are at higher risk…what we know about a lot of our rural populations…they tend to be older, they tend to have more heart disease, more respiratory disease, there’s higher smoking…those are areas where the epidemic can be particularly damaging...the reality is we don’t want to see a lot of cases [in the rural counties] because the damage it can do there is significant, so we want to protect our rural counties as much as possible. And that’s even outside the scope of the broader conversation about we need a much stronger healthcare infrastructure for the rural counties in Virginia. The fact that we haven’t done that yet means we need to protect our rural counties even more so.”
  • “Remember that hospitals make their money on elective procedures…expensive things like hip replacements…COVID-19 is not something that’s a money maker for hospitals…some of the more rural hospitals in my district…they’re operating on a much smaller margin, so when you cut the source of revenue by saying no elective procedures, they’re going to be really hard hit, even in the absence of COVID. So that’s why the $100 billion that was in the Phase 3 stimulus package for hospitals was an important first step, but to make hospitals whole, it’s going to take a lot more than that – a whole lot more than that.”
  • There’s a broader context about this, regarding with where our healthcare system should be moving. “The reality is that I think this pandemic exposes the faultlines across our society and particularly exposes the faultlines in our healthcare system. And so…seeing how poorly [the current system/the way that hospitals make their money] serves us at a time like this is a call for change. Seeing how we have to really do some extraordinary measures to make sure that everybody has access to care, because if they’re sick out in the community, that does more damage to the community than if they’re able to get the care they need in the hospital, that exposes the faultline with issues of access to care. The issue of affordability – the hospitalization related to COVID can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and so that’s why you hear legislators call for COVID treatment to be covered…Those are measures that, when you look at it, it’s like why are we trying to piece this together? We should have a system that accomplishes those goals of access and affordability in making sure that nobody is doomed to financial ruin because they get sick in the setting of a global pandemic.
  • Webb said, frankly, that “the conversation we had six months ago about the future of American healthcare is now a pretty outdated conversation...[The huge scope of this crisis] is a clarion call for significant reform to our healthcare system and to our public health infrastructure…I think it’s urgent that we achieve universal health coverage, meaning that everybody in this country has a form of insurance. Now, my personal belief is that the next step in that transition toward our ideal state has to be let’s get those 28 million people covered urgently, and I think that looks like creating a national health insurance plan that all 28 million of our uninsured can access…I know what I’m describing probably sounds a lot like Elizabeth Warren’s approach to transition, and that’s actually what I believe is the right next step…the next step is let’s get everybody covered, and then beyond that the next step is, let’s get the costs under control in our healthcare system. Because we can’t create a system for 330 million people and expect it to be something we can sustain federally unless we get the costs under control…so we have to both walk and chew gum at the same time…make sure that while we’re getting those costs down, we’re making sure that people still have access to the care they need.”
  • Webb commented on Trump asking, “who knew healthcare could be so complicated?” Webb said “the reality is anybody paying attention knew, and I don’t want Democrats to make the same mistake of thinking this is a simple thing…It’s not simple, it is an incredibly complex system and it’s dependent on different aspects…So when I talk about what I bring to it, it’s not that I bring a talking point or something that’s simplified into Medicare for All or public option…what I bring is a depth of expertise that’s functional and that can work, no matter what our political realities are, that can work to serve the purpose of getting people relief on healthcare…In terms of my values, I want everybody to have access to care, and I don’t want the cost of care to ever cause people financial pain again. Those are the goals. And I will accomplish that because of the depth of my expertise.”
  • Healthcare is “the #1 issue that I talk about in my campaign, it’s also the #1 issue to voters in my district. You know, we had the highest insurance premiums not just in the Commonwealth, but in the entire nation in 2018.” “You can’t go anywhere in this district and ask people about the cost of prescription drugs and not get an earful. The reality is the cost of care is the #1 issue to people.”
  • We talk about climate change a lot…Healthcare is certainly #1, I would say #1b is climate change, and if you look at the 5th geographically, you understand why…a whole bunch of conservationists in Rappahannock County who are really passionate about it.  Charlottesville has this concentrated space of people who are really leaders in the energy space…You’ve got Friends of Buckingham, Friends of Nelson who are leading the fight on the climate crisis…so many folks who are really engaged on climate…We’ve got several solar farms in Halifax County…and I can connect that back to healthcare, I do often.”
  • “The last piece is economic mobility, people just having the ability to get what they need to survive, the opportunity to achieve success, and that plays out through education, job availability, workforce development, and even criminal justice reform…”
  • On healthcare being tied to one’s employment and restricting people’s mobility, Webb said: “I’ll be clear on that, we have to end that – we cannot have your health coverage tied to your employment, it’s just not a sustainable model. When you’re looking at these estimates as high as 32% of the population unemployed in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s horrendous. I [also] hated the idea of work requirements for Medicaid…your coverage should not be tied to your employment…It’s an accident of history [going back to WW2]…for today’s society…it doesn’t work…the lack of portability…it’s just not the right design, that’s something that we need to work swiftly to fix.”
  • I also don’t think that health insurance should necessarily be a for-profit endeavor.” “Healthcare is a human right...a positive right…There’s a huge benefit to the complement between markets and democracy as being a check on each other, but in healthcare at least, it’s not working for us…to the exent that it should. So what we have to do, we have to say, how can we make it if we’re going to use market forces to deliver better products at lower costs for folks..How does our democracy help mold and create the rules of engagement for that market? Because right now, it’s not performing in a way that’s getting more access or cheaper access to individuals. That’s our task. Our task is to say hey, if we’re going to stick with this idea of the market, which is again, antithetical to single payer…if we’re going to do that, how do we put the guardrails around it so that it’s actually serving people in the best way possible? Because at the end of the day, this isn’t about the profits, it’s about the people, it’s about the patients, it’s about delivering care, because that’s what delivers the societal good.”
  • Where does Webb see himself ideologically? He calls himself a “pragmatic progressive,” who argues that “government has a unique role to play in unlocking the potential of markets,” but that markets are certainly valuable, such as leading to incentives for innovations in developing medications. Putting a cap on how much people can make can reduce innovation, so there has to be a balance with market forces. You also can’t just leave people out or “let people die in the streets.” Government needs to be there to address things like income inequality, educational inequality, create opportunities for success for everyone…that will unlock the potential for the workforce – “the cure to cancer may be in some community where there’s a kid in a failing school because of educational inequality.”
  • Webb said that he was a White House fellow that started in the Obama administration and extended in the first couple months of the Trump administration. He said one thing he realized was that “you can’t give unfettered authority to government alone, because in times when you’ve got somebody in the White House like Donald Trump, I would feel completely unsafe if, for instance, if the entire healthcare system were under [Trump’s] thumb, I would be terrified for the country right now...What’s the protection against tyranny, against somebody who doesn’t have the people’s best interests in mind?”
  • On how the Trump administration has done in this crisis, Webb praised Anthony Fauci as doing an “amazing job,” also said “there are people in the administration who are doing a really good job.” But...”the president himself, throughout, has done a poor job of messaging the severity…I think he just didn’t appreciate the science on the front end, and that’s a habit of his...I still think the administration needs to pull out the stops to make sure we have the resources we need…I want to see more of that leadership…I  don’t want to turn it into a partisan thing while there are still lives being lost, communities being ravaged by this…there’s still time, step up, do more…protect the people…One area of frustration was seeing the Trump administration playing this game of, if we focus on the virus, we hurt the economy…They created this dynamic of a false choice for people, that’s not how it works – fighting this virus head-on, doing all the things to really curb the spread of this virus helps the economy and that’s what they need to understand and lean into…Don’t waffle, be decisive, take the steps necessary to curb the spread of this as soon as possible, and that’s the best thing for our economy.”
  • On the campaign, Webb said the campaign is going “really well right now,” which he says is an interesting thing when social distancing is “antithetical to your normal campaign activities…when you’re 69 days away from a primary.” But, Webb said, his campaign “saw this coming, we saw this pandemic spreading” and “we prepared…had a plan in place for sending all of our staff back to their respective homes and having a virtual working plan in place so that we continued to keep stride…Northam’s announcement was on the 12th; on the 13th, we announced our our new engagement strategy…we knew that we were going to have to to change the way that we operate, we changed so much of the fundamental appearance and structure of our campaign, [but] we kept the valuesrooted in people engagement, a lot of time in front of people, that’s why we’ve done so many meet-and-greets…our coronavirus weekly updates on Mondays, our Twitter live on Tuesday, Facebook live on Wednesdays, our Instagram live…we keep working to get our faces, our voices in front of people, but more importantly to create spaces for people to ask us questions…We have a whole plan around virtual engagement, virtual phone banking…This is the way that we’re gonna do this campaign…in so many ways we were prepared for it, we were thoughtful about it.”
  • Webb said there will be debates – “I can’t wait…they’ll be digital spaces, for people to tune in and ask questions” and his campaign is working to make sure folks are ready to vote on June 9th.”
  • “It’s a battleground seat here in Virginia, the only one dealing one the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has called a battleground seat that’s held by a Republican incumbent. So it’s our best opportunity to pick up a seat in the House. Because of the dynamics with the incumbent, who may or may not be the nominee,  We’ve got such an amazing opportunity. What I tell people is he won this race in 2018 to some extent on healthcare, by saying he’s a moderate on healthcare…and I think that he kind of given up that territory, he’s voted against [the Affordable Care Act] at every step and I think that he’s kind of broken that promise to the people when he voted against protecting pre-existing conditions, he voted against reducing the cost of prescription drugs, he essentially voted to support block granting Medicaid – these are things that are anti-ACA, that are in lockstep with the Trump administration. And so you know I always joke the doctor in me knows that we need a much better health care system, and the lawyer in me really wants to prosecute his voting record. He’s a really good foil for me, because I know that I can attack him on the issues, I can beat him on the issues that won him this race and where he’s kind of given up that ground. And so if he is the nominee, I feel like we’re in a really good position to flip this district in November.”
  • Webb concluded: “For me, I’m a Virginia kid, I’m from Spottsylvania County, my wife’s from Appomattox. So for us, kind of being here in central Virginia feels like home. I think it helps for us, when you have that passion about where you’re from…where you still live and being able to connect with people here, I think it it helps a lot, just allow that message to resonate even more.”