Fact check: NC Senate ad slams Tillis health care votes

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The issue: A new advertisement from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a national group working to elect Democrats to the U.S. Senate, takes aim at Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, heavily criticizing his votes on key health care and prescription drug legislation. The ad also claims that Tillis took $1.4 million in campaign contributions from the insurance and drug industries.

Why we’re checking this: The Senate race between Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham has become one of the most expensive in U.S. history, and one of a handful of competitive races that will determine which party holds the chamber next year. Democrats need to gain only three additional seats to take control of the Senate. As one of the key issues for voters this election cycle, it’s important that voters have the facts on Tillis’s record on health care.

What you need to know:

Let’s break down the claims stated in the ad.

Did Tillis take $1.4 million from the drug industry and insurance industry?

Yes.

In the television ad released Friday, the DSCC claimed Tillis “turned his back” on his constituents, citing the senator’s record on health care and campaign contributions from the drug and insurance industries.

“We don’t have an army of lobbyists. It’s Thom Tillis’ job to represent us,” the advertisement begins. “But in Washington, Tillis took $1.4 million in campaign cash from the drug and insurance industry – and worked for them.”

Tillis did receive $1.4 million in total from donors and political action committees in the pharmaceutical industry and insurance industries across the six years of his Senate tenure, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — a nonpartisan research group which tracks money and spending in U.S. politics.

Steven Greene, a professor of political science at N.C. State University, said the ad is mostly accurate in its portrayal of Tillis’ record. But he said he takes issue with the word “corrupt,” which the ad later uses to describe Tillis.

“For the most part, interest groups and lobbyists give money to politicians because those politicians support the same positions they do,” he said. “Thom Tillis believes in a number of things about the pharmaceutical industry and health insurance and health care that mean he’s a good investment for these interest groups to keep in office.”

Greene added that many Democrats have received significant funding from the same industries, and called it “somewhat misleading” to attack Tillis over his campaign contributions. But Greene emphasized that these tactics are standard for political ads from both parties.

This year, Tillis ranked fifth in the nation for total Senate campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. For total insurance industry contributions to Senate campaigns, Tillis ranked eighth. Democratic candidates are also among the top recipients of the funding, led by former presidential hopefuls Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who ranked first and second respectively.

Cunningham ranks 18th among recipients of pharmaceutical industry donations. He is not ranked in the top 20 recipients of insurance industry contributions, however.

In September, Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, told WBTV that Tillis’s heavy industry support despite not being a party leader or presidential candidate “indicates the fact that he is viewed as a very close ally of the industry; that they view him as a very dependable vote in favor of their interest and somebody who, clearly, is willing to champion their legislation, their legislative agenda.”

Did Tillis oppose cracking down on price gouging by drug companies?

That’s mostly accurate. Tillis did oppose an effort to lower prices that had bipartisan support, while co-sponsoring an alternative, partisan bill.

The DSCC ad said Tillis “opposed cracking down on drug company price gouging.” The ad is referring to Tillis’s vocal opposition last year to a bipartisan bill that sought to lower prescription drug costs.

The bill — introduced by Sens. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat — had support from Trump and many Senate Democrats, but failed to find traction with Republicans in the Senate.

The bill would have placed an inflation-based price cap on some drugs, an idea that some Republicans — including Tillis — have argued could stifle innovation.

According to Politico, Tillis said last year that efforts to enact caps on drug prices were “driven by a lot of populist pressure.” Tillis introduced a different bill, alongside other Republican senators, that aimed to lower costs without implementing caps.

In an email to The News & Observer, Andrew Romeo, the spokesperson for the Tillis campaign, said Tillis “believes the American prescription drug system is fundamentally broken.” He pointed to the senator’s bill targeting prescription drug prices as representative of his effort to fix the system.

But Jason Roberts, a professor of political science at UNC-Chapel Hill, said Tillis’s bill didn’t have bipartisan support, and from the outset was not realistically going to pass into law. He added that the introduction of such bills is a common campaign tactic.

“This is so he can say, ‘Look, see I am for this. Look at this bill I introduced,” Roberts said. “But with the Grassley-Wyden bill, when it comes down to brass tacks, and here’s a vehicle that could move, he’s not on board.”

Did Tillis vote against coverage for preexisting conditions?

Yes — though Tillis introduced an alternative option that has faced criticism for being less effective than current protections.

The ad says Tillis voted to “gut coverage for preexisting conditions,” referring to protections in the Affordable Care Act which experts say have been exceedingly popular among voters.

The ad refers to four votes he cast against the Affordable Care Act.

In 2015, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, introduced an amendment that would repeal the Affordable Care Act in its entirety. Tillis voted in support of the amendment, though it was ultimately not adopted.

Two years later, Tillis voted in support of the American Health Care Act of 2017 — a bill introduced and passed by House Republicans that would repeal portions of the ACA. Despite support from Republicans and President Donald Trump, the bill did not pass through the Senate.

In September, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, introduced a bill that would prohibit the Department of Justice from advocating any court strike down the ACA or its provisions. Tillis voted against the bill, and despite some bipartisan support, it failed to find sufficient backing.

Tillis instead introduced the Protect Act — which sought to provide alternative protections for those with preexisting conditions outside of the ACA. But some health policy experts and media reports found that those with preexisting conditions would have significantly fewer protections under the Protect Act than those guaranteed by the ACA.

The Protect Act would guarantee basic protections at risk of being overturned if the ACA is deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in November. While critics acknowledge that it would prevent insurers from explicitly denying applicants coverage or raising their premiums based on preexisting conditions, opponents of the bill have warned that under it insurers could simply charge significantly more for the comprehensive plans required by at-risk customers.

And the Protect Act does not include language in the Affordable Care Act requiring coverage for certain health benefits, such as maternity, mental health, and substance abuse care.

Our sources. Here’s where we found information and research on this topic.

Center for Responsive Politics’ list of top industries contributing to the NC Senate race

Center for Responsive Politics page on Sen. Tillis

Center for Responsive Politics list of top 20 recipients of insurance industry campaign contributions in the U.S. Senate

Center for Responsive Politics list of top 20 recipients of pharmaceutical industry campaign contributions in the U.S. Senate

2015 U.S. Senate vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act

2017 U.S. Senate vote on the American Health Care Act

2017 U.S. Senate vote on an amendment to the American Health Care Act

2020 U.S. Senate vote to prohibit the Department of Justice from advocating that a court strike down the ACA

2019 Politico article on Republican Senators’ response to drug pricing bill

Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act of 2019

Politifact Fact Check on prior ad targeting Trump and Tillis over opposition of bills targeting prescription drug and insulin costs

Pew Research Center August study on most important issues to registered voters this election

2019 New York Times report on the Protect Act

WBTV report: ‘Tillis took pharmaceutical money within weeks of co-sponsoring new drug price bill’

This story was produced by The News & Observer Fact-Checking Project, which shares fact-checks with newsrooms statewide. It was edited by Politics Editor Jordan Schrader and Managing Editor Jane Elizabeth. Submit a suggestion for what we should check, or a comment or suggestion about our fact-checking, at bit.ly/nandofactcheck.

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