Hart and Miller-Meeks debate health care, pandemic

Southeast Iowa rivals seek to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Loebsack

Former state Sen. Rita Hart, D-Wheatland. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Former state Sen. Rita Hart, D-Wheatland. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Two rivals each hoping to claim U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack’s seat in Congress debated the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and took jabs at each other’s Statehouse voting records and stances on health care Thursday night in a televised forum.

Former state Sen. Rita Hart, D-Wheatland, and state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Ottumwa, met for the first of at least three televised debates before the Nov. 3 election. Thursday’s debate was broadcast from the Maytag Auditorium at the Iowa PBS studios in Johnston.

Hart and Miller-Meeks are running in southeast Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District to replace retiring 14-year incumbent Loebsack. It is one of 30 House districts President Donald Trump won in 2016 that is represented by a Democrat.

This is Miller-Meeks’ fourth bid for the seat. An eye surgeon and former director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, Miller-Meeks ran unsuccessfully against Loebsack three times.

Hart, a former Democratic state senator and 20-year teacher, unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor with Fred Hubbell on the Democratic ticket for governor in 2018.

Hart, who said she would push to provide quality, affordable health care for all Iowans by seeking to build upon the threatened Affordable Care Act, criticized Miller-Meeks. support for repealing the law.

“We need to take what we have now and improve upon it,” Hart said. “The thing we cannot do is go backwards” and repeal protections for preexisting conditions that so many Americans have come to rely on.


She did not directly address whether she would support adding a public option to the law as proposed by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Miller-Meeks insisted she has always supported protections for preexisting conditions; however, the “ACA did not bring costs down.”

“What’s more important is: How do we get affordable, accessible health care that’s portable?” she said. “How do we keep costs down? And there’s way to do it” through more pricing transparency.

Hart, however, responded, “It just doesn’t make sense that we’re going to jerk this away from people without a plan in place.”

White House officials this week announced that President Donald Trump will sign an executive order to address surprise medical billing and safeguard insurance for people with existing medical conditions, even as his administration backs a Supreme Court challenge that could undo such protections.

Miller-Meeks said such an order wouldn’t solve the problem, should the U.S. Supreme Court rule the health law unconstitutional, “but it certainly helps set a framework and some groundwork” for Congress to pass new health care provisions.

“We need to start working on that provision now, and make sure people continue to have coverage, and preexisting conditions are covered as well,” Miller-Meeks said.

Miller-Meeks, meanwhile, criticized Hart for her vote in the Iowa Legislature in support of a 2018 bill that allowed organizations in the state to create health care plans that could avoid federal requirements like the one in the Affordable Care Act that says insurance companies cannot reject individuals with preexisting conditions.


Hart called criticism of her support for the bill “hypocritical,” given that the bill was proposed and supported largely by Iowa Republicans. Hart was one of five Democratic state senators to vote for its passage.

“It was meant to apply to people like my husband and I, who are self-employed or small-business owners who did not qualify for subsidies on the exchange (to help purchase health care coverage), but did not make enough money to afford the premiums,” Hart said. “I voted. I crossed party lines. It was the only thing on the table. It wasn’t a great plan, but it certainly was the only thing I could do to help my constituents.”

Turning to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Miller-Meeks said she opposes a federal mask mandate.

“But I certainly think our communication with individuals, that wearing a mask can help protect other people and can help protect you,” she said. “I think that role-modeling, that guidance needed to be more clear. And early in the pandemic, there was confusion. ... Nonetheless, that guidance needed to be more clear, more emphasized and supported.”

Hart said that “it’s only reasonable, again, to listen to the scientists who are saying that masks do make a difference.”

“We’ve lost an opportunity here,” she said. “So, yes, we have to keep each other safe. And we have to follow the guidelines in order to do that.”

On the issue of racial justice, Miller-Meeks supported a state law passed this summer that seeks to address police misconduct.

The bill restricted the use of police choke holds and allows the Iowa Attorney General to investigate deaths caused by an officer and prevent an officer from being hired in Iowa if he or she has been convicted of a felony, fired for misconduct or quit to avoid being fired for misconduct. It would also require annual training for law enforcement on de-escalation techniques and implicit bias.

Miller-Meeks said she supported a similar effort at the federal level, but added: “We know we have a lot more to go. ... I, too, need to do more.”


Hart said she supported the approach taken by Davenport Police Chief Paul Sikorski to be implemented on the federal level.

Sikorski said the department had formed a working group with the NAACP, League of United Latin American Citizens and other community members to review police policies.

“We ought to be bringing people together, creating these kinds of partnerships, taking a look at all the entities — the social agencies, the educational folks, the Black Lives Matter people, all the different stakeholders — and really take a look at what would make a difference,” Hart said. “We’ve got to do this in a more broad-based way.”

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.