“How do you run a campaign with one hand tied behind your back?”

That’s the question Woody Myers is trying to answer. As a Democrat seeking statewide office in Republican-heavy Indiana, he already faced a major challenge in his bid to boot Gov. Eric Holcomb in the November election.

Now he’s also battling a pandemic that has torpedoed fundraisers and made it impossible to meet hordes of voters face to face.

In an interview conducted last week, he used his past as a physician to weigh in on how Indiana should protect its citizens amid the ever-rampaging COVID-19 crisis.

He balked at the idea of reopening schools in places like Evansville, where positivity rates are going up, and he called for Holcomb to expand voting options for an election that will unfold in the hideous shadow of a national health emergency.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.  

More:4 things to know about Woody Myers: the Democrat running for Indiana governor | Webb

Gov. Eric Holcomb has declined to expand voting by mail, even as COVID-19 cases continue to pile up. If you were governor, would you expand it?

Absolutely. There would be zero doubt about it.

There’s no reason why we need to have in-person voting required, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. It makes no sense. Why was no-fault absentee balloting OK for the primary but not OK now? And the pandemic in Indiana is worse now than it was then.

They’re having difficulty finding volunteers to be at the polls. It makes no sense other than political reasons. Indiana has been one of the states that I think has unfortunately led the way in voter disenfranchisement for many years, with the restrictive voter ID laws that were passed many years ago. And now this.

It’s just voter suppression and it’s a shame and it’s wrong.

What other options would you pursue to expand voting rights and access?

With computer systems as they are today, if I’ve got the right identification, why can’t I register the day of? Why does it have to be X weeks in advance?

We ought to have the option automatically of saying I’d rather get a mail-in ballot. Five states now are doing just that and they haven’t fallen off the face of the Earth as a result. One is a very Republican state – the state of Utah.

So it’s not necessarily a party issue. It’s a thinking issue. It’s a safety issue. It’s an encouragement-of-the-participation-in-the-political-process issue. And it’s just wrong not to allow citizens to exercise the right to vote in the most convenient way possible.

More:Coronavirus: 4 reasons the EVSC should delay the start of school (again) | Webb

Schools are reopening across the state. Some have already done so in our area, including the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. on Wednesday. The seven-day positivity rate for coronavirus cases in Vanderburgh County is higher than 10 percent and cases and deaths are climbing. Do you think it’s safe to reopen schools in places that have high positivity rates like that?

No.

Not at all?

I agree that it’s not the safe thing to do. And that’s why (my campaign) called for pushing pause, especially on (attending five days a week.)

Recently, I think there are three zones or categories we should think about: Where we’re not ready to do in-person education; where we’re OK with it because all the indicators have moved in the right direction …  and where I would consider a hybrid: where some signs are moving in one direction and others are moving in another.

The two most important factors are the number of new cases in a particular geography and the percentage of cases that test positive. If new cases are going up, that means the presence of the virus is higher (and) community spread is more likely. If the positivity rate is going up, it suggests the virus is spreading more rapidly and we should be more cautious.

It’s just clear to me that the virus doesn’t know your birth date before it infects you. So this notion that kids don’t get it is wrong. The notion that kids don’t spread it is wrong.

It is true that children don’t get as sick as often as those of us over the tender age of fill-in-the-blank, but it’s also true that kids can spread it to their teachers, many of whom have pre-existing conditions. To the bus driver, to the cafeteria worker – all of those things to me are red flags that say it’s just not safe.

Indiana has had more positive cases in the past two weeks than any period of time since the pandemic began. Hospitalization rates are going up. Deaths are starting to go up as well.

The presidential candidates aren’t having their conventions. The Big Ten is not having football games. The Indianapolis 500 has canceled in-person fans. Yet we want to put our kindergartners, our second-graders and our high school kids, without a mask mandate that means anything, into a school setting and ask them to mix it up?

Ask anyone who has a fourth-grader the likelihood of them A.) Wearing a mask all day and B.) staying six feet away from their buddies. Anybody that has any sense at all knows the likelihood of that happening is pretty close to zero.

So we’ve just got to think differently about this. And I think the leaders are prioritizing the possible economic gain over safety. And as governor, I would prioritize safety.

I would make sure the mask mandate had some teeth in it. I would provide personal protective equipment to the schools and provide assistance with virtual education – the hardware, the software. I would make sure those options are fully fleshed out.

Because we don’t know how long this is going to last. And it’s possible this thing gets a lot worse. So let’s get our schools as best prepared as possible for a longer siege. And if we are so lucky that (the number of infections) goes way down, we can re-examine it and bring students back. But that’s not the case today.

I have a friend who’s nervous about sending her kids back but feels like she doesn’t have a choice. The daycare costs of keeping them home would eat away half of her paycheck. What would you say to parents like that?

I believe we can still use the school for daycare-related options.

I mean, this is a public health emergency. We’re allowed to do things that are unusual. And that includes allowing the schools to become sites where kids can be placed safely, using those classrooms that are available, for daycare options. But to try to force teachers and students together, it just makes no sense.

COVID-19 has exposed more flaws in our healthcare system, especially for low-income residents. People are scared to go to the doctor for cost reasons. I read a quote from you in 2008 where you told columnist Brian Howey that you wouldn’t trade this system for any system in the world. Do you still feel that way?

I wouldn’t trade the options for high-level care in the American healthcare system for any system in the world, no.

I would trade our cost profile. I would trade our prescription drug cost issue. I would trade our access to primary care for other systems.

There are certain aspects of the American healthcare system that do work very well, especially at the high-end. If I have a complicated brain tumor, if I have a major aneurysm in the chest, if I have certain rare diseases – I could give you a long list that, in the United States, we excel in the care of.

In terms of routine primary care, what people need every day, we have cost and quality and access issues that need to be worked on and solved. And other countries have done a much better job of that than we have.

Go back to that Howey quote: I hope I put in the caveat of high-end care. If I didn’t say that, I should have.

(Note: here’s the full quote referenced above. Myers was talking about visiting different countries in his former capacity as chief medical officer for the Ford Motor Company: “My conclusion is I would not trade our system for any system, anywhere else in the world, including Canada, England, including Singapore. Even with our problems, we have the best system in the world.”)

Would you support Obamacare, or a public option?

I do support the Affordable Care Act. I think it’s now time to upgrade it.

I do think we ought to make Medicare available for more, not all. But we ought to have healthcare for all.

Now what do I mean by that? I think we have to expand the availability of affordable private insurance. We have to expand access to our Medicaid program, and we have to make it easier to access Medicare, including a form of a public option.

I just don’t think the country is ready to have a one-size-fits-all Medicare-for-all at the current time. We’ve got to get better at managing access, managing quality and getting the cost down.

And then when that’s done, we can consider other major changes.

Indiana’s statewide eviction moratorium expired on Friday. And some utility shutoff moratoriums are going away, too. Not to be a giant downer, but by the time a new governor takes office, COVID-19 will still be around. How would you help people who are facing losing their homes?

Well first of all, Congress needs to act.

The U.S. Congress and the president have the ability to do deficit financing. They can literally and figuratively print money. States can’t do that.

We’re clearly going to need utilize those powers of the federal government to help. That’s what the federal government is there for, right? And this is a public health emergency.

It’s time to step up and do that. It’s not something that can be done for a few months. We have to have a longer-term view. And that means we have to pass the bill that says you get that $600 (weekly unemployment) supplement (and) we extend the moratorium on evictions.

I think the American people understand that there will be a time when bills are gonna have to be paid. But that time is not today. We’re not even at the end of the beginning of the coronavirus problem.

So let’s, during this period of angst before we have a vaccine that’s readily available, before we have treatments that work better … let’s keep pushing as hard as we can to get the vaccine done and get the treatments done. And in the meantime, let’s help people.

That’s what government is supposed to do.

Are you optimistic about a vaccine?

I am.

I have this love/hate relationship with my friends in the pharmaceutical industry. I love the guys and gals that are on the side of doing the research and finding new approaches to new diseases.

I don’t like the way pharmaceutical industry exploits the payment system. I don’t like the way that they are able to raise prices without any consideration for affordability.

You worked for insurance companies.

I did. I worked for three different Blue Cross plants. (Note: Myers worked for the company in Indiana and California and served as chief medical officer and health strategist for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona.)

Since you know that industry, how difficult will it be to make these kinds of changes you talked about – being able to revamp the system so people won’t get saddled with these crushing medical debts any time they go to the doctor? 

Partly what you’re referring to are the surprise medical bills.

And that’s because when insurance companies negotiate their rates, certain physicians sometimes leave themselves out of those negotiations because they think they can do better and make more revenue by saying “hey look, I’ll offer you my services, but I’m not part of your insurance plan.” So technically they can charge what they want.

The poor patient doesn’t know in advance that the consultant they had for, say, hand surgery in the emergency room, that hand surgeon may not be part of the network, even though the hospital is part of the network and the ER doc is part of the network.

So you get a gigantic bill from the hand surgeon. That’s the kind of surprise medical billing issue that the Congress can fix.

No patient should be faced with that kind of surprise, especially when you think you’ve got insurance to cover it and you don’t.

Running as a Democrat in Indiana is never easy these days, and the pandemic has heaped on a lot of extra complications. What’s it been like running this campaign? You’re at a fundraising disadvantage and you can’t get out and meet people face-to-face like you normally would.

You mean how do you run a statewide campaign with one hand tied behind your back?

Yeah.

You have to do it cautiously, carefully but aggressively.

You’re right: my opponent has had 3.75 years to raise funds. We’ve been officially the candidates for two months – (lieutenant governor candidate) Linda Lawson and I.

(Holcomb’s) also put his arms around every major contractor to the state of Indiana – some of them in advance of them getting the contracts.

You may be aware of the Optum contract. The governor got a $50,000 contribution and two weeks later a sole-source contract to do testing throughout the state of Indiana was issued to one company. Gee, could those things be connected?

(Note: in a statement to the Associated Press, Holcomb claimed he had no involvement in the contract with OptumServe.)

All of those things are challenges. I think we had 15 fundraising events scheduled, not just in Indiana but outside the state, in March and April that had to be canceled. And so yeah, it’s been quite a challenge. But you know, sometimes you gotta learn how to hit a curveball.

How do you like your chances?

I wouldn’t have jumped into this race if I didn’t think it was a winnable race.

I just know working men and women in our state absolutely want to be thought of differently.

We have one of the worst K-12 education challenges in the nation; our healthcare system doesn’t work for the advantage of all Hoosiers; and on and on and on. Those are challenges the average Hoosier wants somebody to fix. And I don’t think my opponent has the willingness to dig into those (issues).

Let me ask you a question, if I may: did you know that Indiana was the third-worst state in America for maternal mortality?

That’s the kind of thing, if it were up to me, I’d put it on the front page of your paper every day. We’re the seventh-worst in infant mortality (note: the CDC lists Indiana as 11th worst); we’re the worst in terms of particulate matter in the air because of our burning of so much coal.

(Note: the United Health Foundation ranked Indiana as 43rd in air pollution. Other ratings have been thrown around too, depending on who's doing the study. In 2014, the Center for Public Integrity said Evansville emitted more toxic air pollution than any city in the country). 

These are the kinds of things the average Hoosier doesn’t hear from my opponent that they need to hear. Because we’ve gotta fix them.

 

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