SALT LAKE CITY — Kathie Allen, the Democratic candidate in the special 3rd Congressional District race, said she supports what most people would call a single-payer government health care system.
“I don’t like that term,” the 64-year-old doctor recently told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards. “I would describe it as a taxpayer-funded system for everyone. But how you decide to implement it needs to be customized for our country.”
It’s a proposal she believes has support in the district that had been represented since 2009 by a conservative Republican, Jason Chaffetz, until he stepped down June 30 and became a Fox News contributor.
“I’m not an outlier. I can’t emphasize enough that if I had this discussion five years ago, I would be called a socialist. And that’s probably what you’re all thinking right now,” the Cottonwood Heights resident said.
What’s changed, Allen said, is that President Donald Trump and many of his fellow Republicans in Congress are trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, “without a reasonable replacement.”
That, along with internal polling that shows health care is the No. 1 issue in the district, has convinced Allen that most Utahns agree with her, she said. Allen’s campaign declined to share any details about the polling.
“I think my message resonates with people,” she said. “I think they want the truth.”
Allen said that means treating voters just as she does her patients when there’s bad news.
“Most patients I talk to say, ‘Dr. Allen, tell it to me straight. Don’t sugarcoat it,'” she said. “They realize they can’t get proper treatment without a diagnosis.”
Unlike the three Republicans competing in the upcoming Aug. 15 primary — Provo Mayor John Curtis, former state lawmaker Chris Herrod and Alpine lawyer Tanner Ainge — Allen has already secured her party’s nomination.
The political newcomer has a big lead in fundraising, collecting nearly $729,000 since entering the race earlier this year, according to her most recent Federal Election Commission filing.
Allen initially was running against Chaffetz, who would have been up for re-election in 2018. Her campaign got a big boost in March after Chaffetz said rather than buying a “new iPhone that they just love,” Americans should invest in health care.
Comedian Rosie O’Donnell and other celebrities helped Allen raise record amounts through her campaign’s crowdfunding effort after she’d tweeted in response, “Cell phone vs. health ins. People have to make a choice. Yes they do, Jason!”
Chaffetz, already under fire from some constituents who saw him as too soft on Trump, announced a month later he would not run in 2018, and then that he was resigning his office to spend more time with his family.
The former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said Allen had nothing to do with his decision, and to suggest otherwise “is delusional.”
Democrats hoping to represent the 3rd District can expect to fight an uphill battle, and Allen is no exception, said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
The district includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties, as well as Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan and Wasatch counties, and is considered one of the most Republican in the nation.
“Any Democratic candidate who is going to be successful in the 3rd District is going to have to position himself or herself as a pragmatic centrist,” Karpowitz said. “Otherwise, I think it’s going to be extremely difficult.”
Allen’s call for the government to provide health care for everyone isn’t likely to help, he said.
“She’s taken a position on an issue that allows her to draw a sharp contrast with what’s going on in Washington, D.C.,” Karpowitz said, adding that Allen has the financial resources to make her case.
But, the political science professor said, voters in the district have “not been particularly friendly toward arguments for more government involvement in health care or anything else.”
And Democrats have to appeal to moderate Republicans and independent voters, as well as members of their own party, if they want to win an election in a GOP-dominated district.
“If the first thing out of the gate is, ‘I want single-payer health insurance,’ that’s likely to be a hard sell,” Karpowitz said. “It’s a bit of a minefield for a Democratic candidate.”
For Allen, a family physician for 30 years who recently sold her practice, her position on health care is the core of her campaign.
“I personally do feel that it’s an ethical and moral issue. I feel that everyone deserves health care,” she said, decrying what she called “the profit motive in medicine.”
Competition isn’t something that patients typically benefit from, she said.
“The free-market system has never worked in health care, and it doesn’t work for a variety of reasons,” Allen said. “You can’t plan when you’re going to be sick.”
Entitlement is another term she rejects when it comes to health care.
“When you see somebody who’s really a spoiled brat or a TV star that thinks the world owes them something, you say they’re entitled,” Allen said. “The way a lot of people use it is you don’t deserve it because it’s your fault you’re sick. It’s your fault that you’re poor. I don’t agree with that.”
A plan that would extend Medicare-style coverage to all Americans must be put together “slowly and thoughtfully,” she said, and that means higher taxes, at least for the wealthy.
Allen said she doesn’t like the term single payer because people see that as federally controlled, when she would like to see states given at least some control over the administration of a new system.
“Something like that would probably work a lot better in the United States, where we like to have states’ rights and have our states have a say over things,” Allen said, citing as a model some foreign countries with universal health care.
Not surprisingly, the Republicans running in the 3rd District do not back such a system of health care.
“I think it’s the opposite direction from where I want to go. I want more choice, competition and free-market forces in our health care system,” Ainge said, including a larger role for health savings accounts.
Herrod said “there will be very stark differences that come out in the general election” on health care. He also wants to see more reliance on health savings accounts, as well as catastrophic insurance plans.
Curtis warned that a “drastic change to single-payer health care takes us in the wrong direction” and called for Republicans “to slow down, be transparent and get to work on a free-market, patient-centered replacement” for Obamacare.
Allen said she currently has insurance purchased through former President Barack Obama’s signature health care system, and for her, a tax increase to cover a universal government plan would likely result in savings.
Trump has undermined the current health care system, she said.
“The one thing he’s ever said that I agree with is health care is complicated. It’s very complicated,” Allen said. “There’s not going to be any instant fix.”