Big gaps between Rep. Debbie Lesko and Hiral Tipirneni on health care and Social Security

The seasons have changed, but the issues have not for U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko and her Democratic challenger Hiral Tipirneni in the battle to represent the West Valley in Washington.

During a Thursday editorial board meeting at The Arizona Republic, health care and Social Security reforms were again the central differences between the rivals running in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District.

The race is a rematch of their April special election.

Lesko, a Republican who narrowly won that race in the traditionally conservative district, said she opposes any government expansion of health care. Lesko also said she was open to raising the eligibility age for Social Security to avert future shortfalls in that program.

Tipirneni, a physician and cancer research advocate, wants to see Medicare expanded to serve as a public insurance option for more than seniors and wants to increase Social Security revenue. She would do that by raising the withholding tax or increasing the amount of income subject to that tax.

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Both issues could have outsized importance in a district that includes several retirement communities.

“Our seniors are worried about their Medicare and their Social Security. They’re concerned about the high price of their prescription drugs,” Tipirneni said. “What they’re concerned about is, with the tax cut that happened back in December, which was a huge transfer of wealth to corporations and the most wealthy, they felt that they were left behind. … They know that Medicare and Social Security are now on the chopping block.” 

After five months on the job in Washington, Lesko said she didn’t have a plan for health care. But she pointed to her work in the Arizona Legislature revamping public pensions for police and firefighters to say she can work productively with diverse interests to settle on good policy. 

“We’re very different on the issue. It’s kind of black and white,” Lesko said. “I just want more patient freedom, more freedom in the free market, private sector. It’s something that I would obviously have to work on. I think hers would turn into Medicare for all.”

Lesko has supported health care savings accounts as a way of expanding personal control over health care and reducing government involvement. She also voted to eliminate the medical device tax and insurance premium that helps fund the Affordable Care Act’s expanded coverage.

“My district is pretty conservative,” Lesko added. “Her plan, no matter what you call it, whether you call it Medicare for all or opt-in, it’s more government health care. … If, all of a sudden, you can go into a government plan, employers are going to drop their plans,” Lesko said. “I just don’t believe the government should be more involved in our health care.” 

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Tipirneni admits she is battling a perception problem about what she wants in health care, mostly in what it is called.

She said she wants universal health care coverage and cost containment, which would include a public option for coverage under Medicare.

That would not include, she said, government-run hospitals or a single-payer system that requires doing away with employer-based, private-sector insurance coverage.

“Let Medicare compete in the marketplace. Let it compete against the private insurance players,” she said. “We know it has about one-tenth of the overhead of private insurance companies.

“If you allow it to compete, it is allowing the free market to work,” Tipirneni continued. “What happens is costs come down, we get enhanced choice and it is a way to cover those people that have fallen between, that don’t have employer-based (insurance) and don’t fit into the subsidies” offered by the Affordable Care Act for coverage.

Lesko said she was still undecided about how to manage Social Security’s future financial needs, but was leaning strongly against raising taxes and would consider raising the eligibility age.

“I’m not for tax increases,” she said. “I’m not going to lock myself into an answer to say I would definitely agree to raising ages or anything. I think just about everything is an issue. But I would be dishonest to say that I want to raise taxes.”  

Tipirneni said she would not raise the retirement age. She favors raising the Social Security tax rate or raising the income subject to the tax, which now tops out at nearly $129,000 annually, or doing both in smaller measures.

The women who have been running against each other essentially since February have collided on campaign tactics, too.

Lesko’s campaign signs calling her a “fake doctor” are “despicable,” Tipirneni said.

Tipirneni said she is a licensed physician who turned to research advocacy instead of emergency-room medicine after losing her mother and 7-year-old nephew to cancer. It was a way to spend more time with her family and advocate for a needed effort, she said.

Lesko, meanwhile, said she resents allegations that she wants to cut Social Security and Medicare.

“You can’t pretend you’re Miss Innocent,” Lesko said.

Lesko said illegal immigration still resonates with many in her district. They want the wall built and they want to know who’s crossing the border,” she said.

Both candidates largely agreed on the need to boost personnel at the borders, put barriers in some places and invest in more and better technology.

Tipirneni, however, doesn’t want a wall that she estimated would cost between $20 billion and $70 billion.

Lesko said Border Patrol agents have told her that a wall would help, especially in keeping out drugs and the gangs ferrying them across the border.

The district covers the West Valley from New River south to Goodyear and from Peoria west past the Sun Cities. It includes Luke Air Force Base and is within Maricopa County.

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