Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., in a Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, June 16, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool via AP) Sen. Thom Tillis, R-NC
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., in a Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, June 16, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool via AP)

Tillis, a Trump ally and ACA critic, is risking coverage for North Carolinians with pre-existing conditions, advocates say during virtual meet Wednesday.

“In two seconds, my entire life changed.”

Montica Talmadge, a 34-year-old North Carolinian, is recalling the day in December 2013 when a driver plowed into the back of her stopped car in Raleigh. 

She remembers the adrenaline, the way she tensed up before the collision. And she remembers pulling the parking brake up.

That was Dec. 5. By Dec. 20, Talmadge, an avid runner training for a Raleigh marathon, was on oxygen at Raleigh’s Rex Hospital with more than 60 blood clots in her lungs. 

“I went from taking vitamins to taking a blood thinner every day,” she said Wednesday, speaking in a virtual meet hosted by progressive healthcare advocates. 

The focus was the conservative healthcare record of North Carolina’s junior US senator, Republican Thom Tillis, who’s voted seven times since his election in 2014 to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). 

When she lost her job and health insurance months later, the price for her medicine went from about $30 a month to $840. Her hospital bills exceeded $85,000.

Talmadge applied and received insurance through the ACA, the massive 2010 healthcare reform law that created an affordable insurance marketplace, boosted protections for people with pre-existing conditions, and expanded access to insurance for the poor. 

Tillis also voted in 2017 for a Trump administration tax reform bill that repealed the law’s individual mandate, a portion of the ACA that required every person to hold health insurance.

Republicans used that tax bill to challenge the ACA in court. A federal court found the ACA’s individual mandate unconstitutional late last year, but the US Supreme Court is expected to hear Democrats’ appeal this year

Wednesday’s virtual event — dubbed “Tillis, You Make Us Sick” — brought together advocates with the healthcare-focused nonprofit Piedmont Rising and NextGen North Carolina, a coalition of progressive youth aiming to mobilize the youth vote. 

“We’re real people impacted by the votes he makes. This is not just a political issue, it’s a personal issue,” said Nicole Skinner, a regional director for NextGen’s NC operation in Asheville. 

Talmadge said Tillis should be held accountable for his ACA votes. “Let’s make him unemployed,” she said.  “Let’s fire him from the temp job that we hired him to do, because he certainly hasn’t done it.”

She added that, with coronavirus gouging the state’s economy and hospitalizations trending up, Medicaid expansion and the ACA could be more important than ever. 

“I’m a Black woman in America,” she said. “I’m definitely affected when I see the numbers going up in NC because I know a lot of those people look like me.”

North Carolinians of color have been disproportionately impacted by the virus, particularly the state’s Latino and Black population. 

Skinner said virtual events are key for the group during the pandemic as they try to mobilize younger voters mostly from their homes.

“We can’t go register people to vote. We can’t go door knocking,” Skinner said. “In the time of COVID-19, it feels more difficult to take action than it normally does.”

Tillis is facing a bitterly close race for re-election this fall against Democrat Cal Cunningham. A survey this month by Public Policy Polling put Cunningham, an ACA proponent, up on Tillis by 2 points. 

The Tillis-Cunningham race, which could decide the balance of power in the Senate, is expected to be one of the closest and most expensive in the nation.

Attendees created digital postcards to send to Tillis and phoned the GOP senator’s D.C. office. They also held a “social media storm,” blasting Tillis directly on his social media accounts.

NextGen leaders said they wanted to focus on the impacts of Tillis’ health care votes for North Carolina families. Without the ACA, organizers said people with pre-existing health conditions, about 1.7 million in NC, could lose coverage. Prescription drug and maternity care services, among many others, could also be imperiled. 

“It can’t be overstated how huge this is,” Natalie Niemeyer, research director for Piedmont Rising, said. “His decision to vote seven times to get rid of these things is absolutely massive.”

Tillis, whose health care positions hew closely to those of the Trump administration, has blamed the ACA for rising health care premiums. And while Tillis said he introduced a separate bill aimed at protecting people with pre-existing conditions in the event the ACA is invalidated, health care experts say those protections fall short.

In addition to his ACA opposition, organizers pointed out Tillis has also voted six times in the US Senate to slash spending on Medicare. And in the four years he was speaker in NC’s House of Representatives, he led the GOP effort to block the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid, a federally-funded initiative that could have delivered health insurance to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians. 

Today, NC remains one of 14 states in the US to block Medicaid expansion, one of the key legislative goals for the state’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and his party in the NC General Assembly.

Cunningham, Tillis’ opponent, says he supports a public option for healthcare insurance and Medicaid expansion.