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Sen. Mark Warner, opponent Daniel Gade ramp up attacks over healthcare, Affordable Care Act

Gade compared Warner to a windup doll with only one line as he fended off the jabs, saying he did not support the “nonsense idea” of repealing the health-care legislation known as Obamacare.

“Every time you pull the Mark Warner string, he says I’m for repealing the ACA,” Gade said. “And I’ve never said that. I’m not for it. We need to upgrade the ACA.”

The issue of health-care access has dominated much of the campaign. It is personal for both Warner, who has a daughter with type 1 diabetes, and Gade, who lost his leg in combat in Iraq in 2005.

Gade pledged Tuesday night never to support a bill that does not protect people with preexisting conditions. Warner stressed that prescription drug pricing reform is essential and said the government should have the power to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies.

Gade, a first-time political candidate, held his own against the popular former governor and two-term senator during the debate, which was sponsored by AARP and moderated by Bill Fitzgerald, an anchor for the CBS affiliate in Richmond.

But Gade’s candidacy is considered a long shot in a state that has not elected a Republican to statewide office since 2009. Polls released in mid- to late September show Gade trailing Warner by between 13 and 17 points.

As he has in the past, Warner brushed off Gade’s attacks by saying Virginians know his record.

“Simply calling a person a career politician over and over doesn’t change the facts,” Warner said. “What I’m counting on the most is that Virginians know me. They know without my bipartisan work, there wouldn’t be a Chronic Care Act,” which made Medicare changes to improve care for people with long-term illnesses or disabilities, including by expanding telehealth.

In an apparent appeal to moderates, Gade at times took shots at his own party, saying Republicans who want to repeal the ACA are “making a mistake, just kicking the can down the road.”

Gade supports market reforms such as increasing the size of health savings accounts, price transparency and increasing competition among insurance companies by allowing them to sell insurance across state lines, an issue on which he and Warner agree.

The most personal segment of the night came when Gade shared his own experience with opioid addiction in response to a question about how the candidates would try to combat the epidemic if elected.

Gade said he became addicted when his leg was amputated in 2005, after he woke up in a hospital, hooked up to an IV pumping opiates into his bloodstream. He eventually had to wean himself off with methadone.

“I was sweating at night. My skin was crawling. And so I have a message for my Republican friends, some of whom have said ridiculous things like, ‘Opioid addiction is a weakness,’ ” Gade said. “I disagree, because I’m a very strong man, and it was hard to get off opiates.”

He advocated for ensuring that states have adequate funding for methadone clinics and for treating opioid addiction as a disease. Warner agreed.

The two again sparred over approaches to the coronavirus pandemic, reviving their go-to attacks from past faceoffs.

Gade has repeatedly shamed Warner for voting against the Senate’s coronavirus relief package, which Warner said he opposed because it did not go far enough to aid local governments, schools or small businesses.

As Warner noted, the Senate bill did not have support from all Republicans either.

“I’m not going vote for a bad bill,” Warner said. “I think there ought to be a compromise. The first covid relief bill, I was proud to negotiate with [Treasury Secretary Steven] Mnuchin. We need that kind of compromise again to get the virus behind us.”

Warner said he intended for his Jobs and Neighborhood Investment Act, which would heavily invest in minority businesses, to be in the next coronavirus relief package to help reopen the tens of thousands of minority-owned businesses that have closed during the pandemic.

At one point during Tuesday’s debate, Gade tried to tie Warner’s “no” vote on the Senate relief bill to Virginia public school closures. He incorrectly said Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had announced plans earlier in the day to close all public schools in the state — a false rumor resulting from a misleading post by a Richmond television station that the station has since corrected.

On other items, both Warner and Gade pledged to work on reforming Social Security and Medicare. In a pitch to voters to give him a shot, Gade said “career politicians from both parties” have failed to get it done.

They differed on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, with Gade saying that Republicans erred in 2016 by not giving Merrick Garland a vote and should go forward with Barrett, and Warner saying that the Senate should wait until after the election.

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