U.S. Rep. Joe Heck and other GOP lawmakers are responsible for the Ebola crisis because federal budget cuts have crippled the ability of the government and hospitals to deal with an infectious disease outbreak, Erin Bilbray, the Democrat challenging Heck, charged Monday.
Heck should be ashamed of his record on health care, Bilbray said.
In response, Heck accused Bilbray of lying about his record and he said lawmakers just this year voted to boost funding for the Centers for Disease Control by 8.2 percent. He also said that the Ebola infections of two nurses in Texas were due to human error, not the CDC budget.
“The issue of the CDC having enough resources to respond would have no impact on the nurses who were infected,” Heck said.
“I disagree with you,” Bilbray said. “Our CDC needs to be funded. Our hospitals are not prepared to address this issue.”
The heated 45-minute debate at the Ner Tamid Temple in Henderson was moderated by Jon Ralston, host of “Ralston Reports” on Channel 3, who allowed the two candidates to engage and sometimes interrupt the other.
Heck is running in the Nov. 4 election for a third term to represent the 3rd Congressional District in Clark County, including Boulder City and Henderson.
Heck said many of the fears about Ebola are valid, but he also blamed overall distrust of government and media hype. An emergency room doctor, Heck said he has written training material on handling infectious disease cases for hospitals in Southern Nevada. But post 9/11, training has fallen off and hospitals need to re-learn the protocols, he said.
Asked whether he would support banning flights from Africa to the United States, Heck said he would do so for primary outbreak countries, such as Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Bilbray said she supports a ban on all tourist visas to and from Africa until Ebola is under control.
“This is another example of Congress being broken,” Bilbray said, noting the CDC’s budget had been cut by $284 million. “You’re not doing your job. You need to go there and address these issues.”
Bilbray, the underdog in the race, said Congress ought to cut short its current recess and pull lawmakers off the campaign trail to address the Ebola outbreak. She suggested the same thing in their first debate in regard to comprehensive immigration reform.
Asked if President Barack Obama’s administration is handling the crisis well, Bilbray faulted only Congress.
“I think the government response was not adequate,” she said.
Heck said there’s nothing Congress could do right now.
“There will be human error,” Heck said. “No matter how much (money) CDC has, this won’t help hospitals’ preparedness. … We need to go back and brush off the (training) book.”
The two candidates also got into an angry back-and-forth in discussing veterans benefits, Medicare and Social Security. Bilbray said Heck wants to privatize Social Security, and she said he’s done nothing to raise Medicare reimbursement rates so doctors won’t drop patients. Congress had boosted reimbursement rates, but on a year-to-year basis instead of a permanent fix.
Heck, sounding exasperated, said he introduced the first bill to “repair Medicare” and reintroduced it this year. He said it passed the House. As for Social Security, Heck said he has proposed allowing younger workers to invest retirement funds as they like, instead of with the government.
He also said he wouldn’t vote to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act without a replacement. He said he has proposed a new plan, which is why he voted with the GOP for repeal.
Bilbray said she was “stunned” by Heck’s response
“I understand you’re embarrassed by your record,” she said.
“I’m not embarrassed by my record,” Heck shot back. “My bill is an alternate way to induce people to buy insurance. I would rather use a carrot than a stick.”
On veterans benefits, Bilbray accused Heck, a brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserve who has served in Iraq, as voting to cut benefits.
“To say I voted against veterans benefits is just blatantly a lie,” Heck said, noting the veterans’ budget has increased 250 percent over the past decade while the number of veterans has increased by 35 percent. He said he would always back veterans who “fought and bled” for the United States.