Meet the outsider
Ridge resident Dennis Duncan is using health care as a cornerstone of his first campaign
In his daily dealings with children and families in Butte County, social worker Dennis Duncan says he sees a health care system that is broken. That’s what spurred him to make a run for U.S. Congress, with his sights set on Rep. Doug LaMalfa’s seat in the 2018 general election.
“In my experience working as a social worker, I have seen that the ACA [Affordable Care Act] was a good bill for some folks,” Duncan said, after giving a short stump speech outside LaMalfa’s Oroville office on Monday (Oct. 30). “However, I work a lot with families who may be lower-middle income and they struggle with ACA—the premiums and the deductibles—and many of them simply opt not to do it. It leaves them without health care.”
Duncan, a Democrat from Magalia who’s never held public office, spoke to a crowd of about 30 supporters holding various signs including calls for universal health care. But Monday’s press conference was more specifically a call for his opponent, LaMalfa, to reinstate the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and helps provide matching funds to states for health insurance for families who are uninsured and don’t qualify for Medicaid (in California, known as Medi-Cal). The program expired on Sept. 30 with Congress not taking action to renew it.
“Right now, it’s kind of dead,” Duncan said. “It’s expected that by the end of the year the program will be nonexistent if Congress doesn’t do anything.”
The program is a partnership between the state and federal government. It provides low-cost health care coverage for 9 million children from lower- and middle-class families nationwide, according to the Center for Medicaid and CHIP Services. (In some states, including California, CHIP also covers pregnant women.) Duncan estimates about 40,000 children in Congressional District 1, which includes Chico, receive CHIP benefits and said he’s dumbfounded as to why Congress would let the program expire.
“Mr. LaMalfa has not made any statements for or against,” Duncan said. “That’s why I am out here today. If Doug LaMalfa came out here today and said he’d gladly vote for CHIP, I’d pack my stuff up and leave.”
Turns out, the next day, the congressman did just that.
LaMalfa gave support to extending the program during a short speech on the floor of the House Tuesday night, blaming Democrats for holding up the bill.
“Yet despite months of assurances to work together, Democrats continue to stall the reauthorization,” LaMalfa said. “We can’t afford any more delay.”
The program’s expiration came on the heels of Republicans’ recent failed attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. States have had enough CHIP funding for an additional few months, but that will soon run dry. At issue for the Democrats is that the House bill to extend the funding includes cuts to the ACA’s public health fund, among other issues they say harm those covered by the existing federal health care law.
A vote on the measure is expected on Friday (Nov. 3), according to a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican representing California’s 23rd Congressional District.
Duncan is a newcomer to the political arena. He is a Bernie Sanders supporter who, during an interview with the CN&R following his press conference, criticized Hillary Clinton. “I was very disappointed in the campaign of Ms. Clinton. I never felt like she got a good strong message out there,” Duncan said. “I felt like Mr. Sanders did that.”
The 59-year-old Ridge resident is piggy-backing on the grassroots campaign that saw Sanders, who ran as a Washington outsider, climb to prominence in a presidential race based on ideas such as universal health care and tuition-free public colleges and universities.
Duncan is certainly a Washington outsider, having spent most his life in Butte County. He grew up in Paradise, eventually attending UC Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He spent most of the ’90s working as a services coordinator for the homeless in Chico, where he also lived at the time. In 2002, he began commuting to Glenn County, where he worked with families and children as a social worker, all while still living in Chico. He moved to the Ridge in 2006 and now works for Butte County.
“I believe that one of the big issues in District 1 is our economy,” he said.
Duncan said if elected, he’d propose a bill called the Renew America Act, which would allocate $750 billion to green energy infrastructure. The bill also would provide broadband for rural areas, he added.
“It would also allow us to deal with climate change,” Duncan said.
Being a product of a public university, Duncan said he’d also work at lowering the costs of higher education. He said he’d introduce the United States Affordable Education Act. The bill would make the cost of attendance at Chico State about $325 per semester. “That’s affordable,” Duncan said. As it is, a semester at Chico State runs just over $3,500.
“It’s sucking away at our economy,” Duncan said. “People who want to buy homes, who want to have a family, they want to get married, and they can’t afford to because they’ve got $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 in student loans.”