GOP senator's office snubs cancer survivor in need of health aid

A startling peek behind a curtain: a Republican aide told a cancer survivor she shouldn't look for social-insurance programs when things get tough.
Image: Tom Tillis
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., asks a question during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled "Police Use of Force and Community Relations," in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on June 16, 2020.Tom Williams / Pool via AFP - Getty Images file

A North Carolina woman named Bev Veals has had to overcome extraordinary health care challenges, including three bouts with cancer. This year, her difficulties grew even more serious when her husband was furloughed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Concerned about her family's future, Veals did what many Americans would be expected to do given her circumstances: she called her members of Congress, inquiring about her possible options. Veals ended up speaking with a staffer in Sen. Thom Tillis' (R-N.C.) Capitol Hill office, and as WRAL in Raleigh reported, the aide's lack of empathy was so jarring, she started recording the interactions.

"You're saying that, if you can't afford it, you don't get to have it, and that includes health care?" she asked. "Yeah, 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," he replied.

When Veals explained that health care, unlike new dress shirts, is a vital need, especially for someone who's had multiple bouts with cancer, the staffer to the Republican senator responded, "Well, you got to find a way to get it."

Asked what she should do, the unidentified aide added, "Sounds like something you're going to have to figure it out."

Tillis' office said issued a written statement to WRAL, conceding that the staffer's comments to Veals were "completely inappropriate." The statement added that "immediate disciplinary action has been taken."

A report like this comes with a variety of implications, including the degree to which Tillis -- facing a difficult re-election fight in North Carolina this year -- is responsible for his aides' interactions with constituents.

But as jarring as this was, I was also fascinated by the peek behind the curtain into a specific conservative worldview: this Republican aide effectively told a cancer survivor she shouldn't look for social-insurance programs to help her family when things get tough. Health care coverage, he argued, is a consumer good, which should be made available to those who can afford to purchase it.

Those who can't pay the price should, as the GOP senator's staffer put it, "figure it out." This isn't limited to one random Capitol Hill aide; it's representative of an entire school of Republican thought, which fundamentally rejects the idea making affordable care available to American families as a vital social need.

Indeed, what I'd love to know is what Thom Tillis wishes his staffer had told Bev Veals. Obviously, the aide should've shown the constituent more respect, and he should've treated her with greater professionalism and courtesy, but as a policy matter, how should their phone call have gone? Would Team Tillis have tried to direct Bevs to the Affordable Care Act, which he's long opposed? Would Tillis have encouraged Bevs to look into Medicaid expansion, which the Republican blocked in North Carolina when he served as the state House speaker?

As for Bevs, the WRAL report added, "Her family is tapping retirement savings to keep her insurance, while hoping her husband will be called back to his job, she said."