Bipartisan Vanderbilt student-led forum drills candidates on the issues

The student-led Vanderbilt Policy Group Science Forum participants included (left) Tony Niknejad (representing gubernatorial candidate Republican Bill Lee); Justin Kanew running for U.S. House, 7th District, challenging Sen. Mark Green; Democrat Rebecca Purington, state House candidate, 61st District, facing Republican Brandon Ogles; Democrat Kristen Grimm, candidate for state Senate, opposing incumbent Sen. Jack Johnson and Dr. Andrew Pfeffer, representing gubernatorial candidate Democrat Karl Dean.

Green, Johnson and Ogles were not present.

Health care emerged as a prominent issue at a recent Bipartisan Science Forum hosted by the student-led organization Vanderbilt Science Policy Group held at the Williamson County Enrichment Center.

Candidates in key races in the Nov. 6 Election, or their representatives, participated in the forum including Tony Niknejad (representing gubernatorial candidate Republican Bill Lee) and Dr. Andrew Pfeffer (representing gubernatorial candidate Democrat Karl Dean); Justin Kanew running for U.S. House, 7th District, challenging Sen. Mark Green; Democrat Rebecca Purington, state House, 61st District, facing Republican Brandon Ogles; and Democrat Kristen Grimm, candidate for state Senate, opposing incumbent Sen. Jack Johnson. 

Green, Johnson and Ogles were not present.

The Democratic candidates seemed to agree that the expansion of Medicaid would bring relief to the state in many areas from serving those in the health care coverage gap to combating the opioid crisis by providing those in need with mental health services.

Many candidates agreed that treating the opioid crisis with mental health treatment, in addition to medical treatment, would provide better outcomes.

“We need more focus on prevention rather than treatment to remove barriers in care from Medicaid and Medicare,” Purington said.

“States that expanded Medicaid have better outcomes in dealing with the opioid crisis,” Grimm added.

“Patients have no access to specialty care and mental health services. The best way is to expand Medicaid in the state, which Gov. Haslam tried to expand twice, and the legislature all but waged a war against their own Republican governor.”

“This is a public health disaster,” said Pfeffer, who is a physician.

“I see patients everyday struggling with this crisis. It is mind-boggling. The legislation is a step in the right direction, but it is underfunded and not enough. From a federal and state perspective, it starts with expanding Medicaid.”

The state legislature recently voted to restrict the ways opiates are distributed as a way to combat the crisis.

“Treating mental heath issues will have better outcomes, and it shows in states that have expanded. It is not a theory, it is a fact. We know that it helps,” Pfeffer said.

“We are suffering from the lack of expansion, and we would be growing so much more if we expand and into rural communities. Without that expansion, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Grimm said legislators need to be mindful of bills introduced that would cut Medicaid, and in turn funding for children’s hospitals, she explained.

“My area of concern in advocacy is to protect children’s hospitals in our state,” Grimm said. “Congress introduced [the Graham-Cassidy bill] that would have altered, and been a disastrous cut, in the Medicaid program, which drastically reduced the size of Medicaid by 40 percent and would have slashed funding to children’s hospitals.”

Kanew explained that a county over in Columbia, “45 minutes from here” access to health care is more like “a third world country,” in which 300 uninsured people waited in a parking lot overnight to receive care from Remote Medical International, an organization that "provides integrated and occupational health care for industrial and challenging environments.”

“We lost $5 billion from not doing it [expanding Medicaid]. We are a health care epicenter and in the 40s in health care access … rural hospitals have closed in parts of our state.”

A clean environment, agriculture and technology

Candidates also answered questions related to agriculture and the environment, including the importance of keeping air and water clean in communities.

“We are committed that Tennesseans have access to clean air and water,” Niknejad said.

Niknejad also explained that Lee is on a mission to preserve and enhance the state’s rural way of life, citing that the food and agriculture industry make up 9 percent of the sate’s economy and employ 30,000 Tennesseans.

Lee is a generational farmer, who raises cattle on a farm in Williamson County. He is also a businessman and previous president of Lee Company. Lee has made a big push to promote and provide more vocational educational opportunities in high schools throughout the state to expand work and training options for students.

Niknejad also said increasing opportunities to enhance technology in agriculture is long overdue.

“You can’t pack up and move your farm,” he said like many other industries that seem to be moving at a faster pace in technology.

“The agriculture industry has not kept up like other industries in technological advancements.”

He also said that Lee is in favor of programs that support smart growth and water initiatives, including land trusts to help preserve green spaces.

“We need people in office who have an interest in science and studying,” Purington said. “I have spent 30 of my 50 years around scientists, researchers and technologists. We need to address renewable energy, technology and anything that can help out the state.”

Traffic and infrastructure

Niknejad said the state will have to find money to dedicate to infrastructure in how people commute and how we take care of our roads.

“We are going to have to find another revenue source,” Niknejad said. He explained that timelines in road construction projects could be improved to reduce commute times.

“Our lack of infrastructure is affecting our most vulnerable in Tennessee,” Grimm said.

“We need leadership that does not procrastinate and finishes the projects we start in a timely manner,” Grimm said citing the Northwest Extension has been in the improvement books for too long before funding was gained.

Grimm also said rural areas that are subject to poverty need infrastructure to function and prosper, especially broadband.

“Many people who fall below the federal poverty line don’t have access to internet because they can’t afford to have service,” she said. “And they have to do homework on their mother’s iphone because they don’t have the money.

“We need to be mindful of people living in poverty and make sure those kids don’t get left behind.”

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