CONWAY -- The three 4th Congressional District candidates clashed over health care, covid-19 relief and abortion during Tuesday's Arkansas PBS debate.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Hot Springs, shared the stage with Democrat William Hanson of Hot Springs and Libertarian Frank Gilbert of Tull during the roughly hourlong exchange.
All three candidates agreed that changes are needed to the nation's existing health care system, though they differed on how to fix it.
"We still have 31 million people uninsured in this country. The cost of health care continues to go through the roof," Westerman noted.
He touted legislation he has filed to overhaul the 2010 Affordable Care Act, calling it an improvement over the existing system.
Westerman's Fair Care Act would give states greater flexibility to use federal health care dollars, encourage telehealth options and expand the number of people who are eligible for health savings accounts.
It also sought to slow rising health care costs, in part by limiting lawsuits, and it required congressional approval before major Food and Drug Administration actions could be taken. It also eliminated the employer mandate and a variety of taxes.
"We're going to cover preexisting conditions. We want to lower costs for the taxpayer as well as people who are buying their own insurance policies, and we want to cover more people, and I believe we have accomplished that with the Fair Care Act," he said.
Hanson, on the other hand, questioned whether the bill was even politically feasible.
"What is this, the 75th time Republicans have tried to pass a bill to replace the Affordable Care Act?" he said.
"When Mr. Westerman first introduced his Fair Care Act [in 2019], he had absolutely no co-sponsors, not even from his own party," he said.
The congressional website lists three co-sponsors on the 2020 version, which was filed earlier this month.
"I think we need to quit playing around with health care, especially during this time. We need universal coverage for everybody. ... I do believe that health care is a right," he said.
While questioning the need for "another massive legislative program," Gilbert expressed concern about unmet health care needs in Arkansas.
"I believe that the Congress and the president in the coming years should be able to take the steps necessary to ensure that no one dies in Arkansas or suffers because of the lack of health care products," he said.
The three candidates also differed over the nation's response to covid-19.
Westerman said lawmakers had moved swiftly to address economic problems arising from the pandemic.
"The [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] Act, which was broadly supported in Congress, provided immediate relief through stimulus checks, through unemployment insurance and through the Paycheck Protection Program," he said.
Democratic efforts to approve trillions more in spending are unwise, he said, noting that some CARES Act funding remains unspent.
"We don't need to have another relief package that does stuff that's unrelated to the pandemic," he said.
Hanson insisted additional spending is necessary and faulted Republicans for failing to act.
"The Democratic Congress passed a bill way over four months ago. The Senate has yet to take it up," he said.
"We needed those funds to continue the extension of unemployment benefits for citizens, not just in Arkansas, but across the country," he said. "This is not just an individual issue. This really helps the economy. ... We need another stimulus package."
Gilbert accused both parties of bungling the nation's covid-19 response.
"At every turn, they make it worse," he said.
"The federal government, the state governments, shut down economies. ... They dithered and they frittered and they tried to figure it out, and they still haven't," he said. "There's not enough tax money in the world to take care of the problem they created."
On abortion, Westerman and Gilbert both supported greater restrictions on the procedure.
"I'm unequivocally and unapologetically pro-life," Westerman said.
"When we look at rights that we have, the right to life far outweighs any right to choice," he said. "As long as I am in Congress I will continue to fight to put it in law that children have the right to live."
Gilbert's stance was similar.
"We do have individual rights to what happens to our bodies. But when we exercise that right and conceive a child, there is a third party involved who is blameless and should not be the victim of an abortion," he said.
Hanson questioned whether existing government restrictions are appropriate.
Referencing the nation's antebellum period, Hanson stressed the importance of bodily autonomy.
"For 250 years, African American women and men had no control of their body. When we banned slave importation, we started breeding the slaves. Women were forced to bear babies who became slaves," he said. "Now this is not the exact same thing, but I don't think the government has any right at any time to tell a woman what to do with her body."
This is Hanson's first congressional race. The Camden native is a military veteran, educator and attorney, with law licenses in California and Colorado.
He's trying to unseat Westerman, an engineer and forester who served in the state General Assembly before his election to Congress in 2014.
Gilbert, a former Grant County coroner and Tull mayor, has run repeatedly for public office as a Libertarian. In 2016, he unsuccessfully challenged Republican U.S. Sen. John Boozman, garnering 4% of the vote in a three-way race.