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Reexamining Mike Pence's Record On Health Care As Indiana Governor


President Trump has put his No. 2 in charge of the U.S. response to the new coronavirus.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Mike is going to be in charge, and Mike will report back to me. But he's got a certain talent for this.

KELLY: It is true that Vice President Mike Pence has dealt with public health crises before. When he was governor of Indiana, five years ago, his state faced an outbreak of a different kind - a cluster of HIV cases linked to the opioid epidemic. Jake Harper is an investigative health reporter with WFYI in Indianapolis. He covered that outbreak. He joins me now.

Jake Harper, welcome.

JAKE HARPER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So take me back to 2015. What exactly happened? How did this HIV outbreak begin?

HARPER: So in early 2015, the state announced that people in Austin, Ind., were contracting HIV. Austin's a small rural town sort of near the Kentucky border. It has little more than 4,000 people, but that outbreak eventually grew to more than 200 who were infected with HIV. The virus was spreading through injection drug use. People were taking this painkiller, injecting it. At the same time, they were sharing their needles and spreading HIV.

So back when this was happening, I went to Austin. And I met a man named Kevin Polly. And he told me that the very same day he found out he was infected with HIV, another woman asked to share his needle.


KEVIN POLLY: She said, Kevin, I've got a problem. She said, I've got this pill but no needle. She said, can I use yours? And honey, I just tested positive for HIV. Well, we've used before; you know, it don't matter. Oh, my God, honey, it does matter. Before, I didn't know I was sick. I let her use my needle - the last one. Should have never happened.

KELLY: It did happen. They weren't the only ones. And it became this crisis to which then-Governor Mike Pence responded how?

HARPER: Critics would say that Governor Pence responded too slowly. Many people were calling for Indiana to legalize syringe exchange programs, where someone who uses drugs can bring their used needles and get clean ones. Other states allow this, and they help prevent infections. But Pence was really resistant to that idea for a while. Here he is back in 2015.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I don't believe that effective anti-drug policy involves handing out paraphernalia to drug users by government officials. I reject that.

HARPER: Pence actually took another month to think about it after the state announced the outbreak, and then he reluctantly authorized a needle exchange in Scott County.

KELLY: One other thing about his record - which is that Pence is an evangelical Christian. Bernie Sanders - Senator Sanders, who's running for the Democratic presidential nominee, he was tweeting Trump's plan to deal with all this is to have Pence, quote, "who wanted to pray away HIV epidemic oversee the response."

Fact-check that for us. Did Mike Pence try to pray away HIV?

HARPER: I don't think so. I think the quote from him was that he was going to go home and pray on the decision of whether to authorize a needle exchange. He ended up authorizing the exchange, but I don't get the sense from reading that quote that he was trying to pray away the problem of HIV.

KELLY: OK. Questions also being raised today about the wisdom of putting Pence in charge with coronavirus because of his role in slashing the public health budget in Indiana when he was governor, which prompts me to ask - did Mike Pence, as governor, do anything that public health officials liked?

HARPER: Sure. So Pence, as a Republican, under Obamacare, did expand Medicaid. He did it with restrictions. So people who need insurance, many of them need to pay a premium in order to get coverage, and they face getting kicked off or getting bumped down to a lower level of coverage if they don't pay. But that program did bring health insurance to a lot of people who didn't have it before, and that helps with public health issues like addiction.

KELLY: But bottom line - how relevant is Mike Pence's experience as governor dealing with health issues in Indiana to his ability to handle the coronavirus in 2020?

HARPER: Well, it's Pence and his entire health team seem to have gone with him to D.C. So Seema Verma, who is now the head of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is often referred to as the architect of Indiana's Medicaid program. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar used to be the head of Eli Lilly, which is based in Indianapolis. And U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who just joined the White House coronavirus task force, was the state health commissioner here for years.

KELLY: Wow. It's the whole Indiana team - upped stakes and moved to D.C.


KELLY: Jake Harper, he's a reporter with WFYI and a co-host of the podcast Sick.

Thank you.

HARPER: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jake is a reporter with Side Effects and WFYI in Indianapolis. He decided to pursue radio journalism while volunteering at a community station in Madison, WI, and soon after began an internship with NPR's State of the Re:Union. Jake has received a first place award from the Milwaukee Press Club and he was a finalist in KCRW's 24-Hour Radio Race. In his spare time, he runs and tries to perfect his pizza crust recipe.
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