A staffer for Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) may have weakened his boss’ already shaky political fortunes when he made one of Washington’s worst political gaffes: telling the truth.
The staff member in Tillis’ Washington office had been called by Bev Veals, one of the senator’s North Carolina constituents and a three-time cancer survivor worried about her health insurance status. Frustrated by the staffer’s lack of empathy, Veals tried to make him understand her and her husband’s situation by asking him to imagine his parents in their position ― out of work, struggling to continue paying their health insurance premiums.
That’s when the staffer, according to Veals, told her that his parents would “gladly die if they couldn’t afford medical care.”
Veals said she was “incensed” by that comment, so she started recording the conversation. She again asked if it was really his and the GOP’s position that if you can’t afford health care, you shouldn’t get to have it.
“Yeah,” the staffer said, according to the recording, “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.”
“But health care is something that people need,” Veals responded, “especially if they have cancer.”
“Well, you got to find a way to get it,” the staffer responded, with a laugh.
Tillis’ office did not respond to multiple HuffPost requests for comment. But the office told a local North Carolina TV station that the staffer has been reprimanded, though how was not specified.
Tillis, who first won his seat in 2014, faces a tough reelection challenge this November from Democrat Cal Cunningham. Polls have shown a close race, with Cunningham having a slight edge in most of them.
I’m not going to allow anybody to claim that the health insurance that we desperately need as a safety-net is comparative to a frivolous cost. Bev Veals' husband, Scott.
Veals, 56, and her husband, Scott, 55, told HuffPost in an interview Wednesday that they had not heard from Tillis or anyone on his staff since the conversation earlier this week. Scott Veals theorized that’s because Tillis has no real answer for what they should do.
“‘I’m very sorry that my staffer in the office spoke to you in that manner,’” Scott said, imagining what Tillis would tell his wife, “and then he has nothing else to say. He can’t tell you that we’re working very hard toward health care. He can’t tell you that we’re working very hard to help ordinary citizens.”
The reality is, the staffer came clean about the Republican position on the issue that is uppermost in the mind of many voters. Underneath the exchange with Veals is a philosophical and economic debate about health care.
Republicans (as well as some Democrats) want to apply free-market ideas to health care ― comparable to shopping for clothes. But as Bev Veals pointed out, health care is something people need. If you need medical treatment, your choice to just not get it because of cost ― like a dress shirt ― isn’t seen as viable in virtually every other industrialized nation. In those nations, health care is considered a right, not an option.
The Veals went through a medical bankruptcy in their late-40s during one of Bev’s cancer treatments. The strategy for dealing with cancer and other serious illnesses “should not be trying to figure out how to manipulate a health care system so that you can get the coverage and the treatment that you need,” it should be easily accessible, Bev said.
Scott, who is an independent contractor in the TV sports industry, stopped working in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. “When I don’t work, I don’t get paid,” Scott said.
With no money coming in, the Veals have had to dip into their savings to cover their nearly $1,700 a month health insurance premium. They could try to get on the Affordable Care Act’s exchange, but only one option is available in North Carolina, and it would cost more than their current plan.
Faced with their dilemma, Bev decided to contact her state’s congressional representatives to ask what they should do. Tillis’ office was the first she had gotten through to, with many offices closed down or operating on limited hours because of coronavirus. She didn’t expect someone to be so blunt and uncaring about their position.
“My wife is a three-time cancer survivor,” Scott said. “And she and I have spent a lot of time and effort and money to continue her life. And I’m not going to allow anybody to claim that the health insurance that we desperately need as a safety-net is comparative to a frivolous cost.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.