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GOP Candidate Eric Hovde Wanted to Raise Health Care Prices for People With Obesity

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File

Multimillionaire banker and Wisconsin U.S. Senate candidate Eric Hovde has made health care, namely his beef with Obamacare, one of four central issues on his campaign website.

The Republican challenger to Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who also unsuccessfully ran in 2012, has long opposed the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Back then, Hovde said he didn’t support anything about it—including its coverage for Americans with pre-existing conditions or allowing people to stay on their family’s insurance until age 26.

Now newly resurfaced video shows that Hovde proposed enacting an especially cruel health-care measure: Charging higher premiums for people living with obesity and reducing the amount of care they receive.

“You become obese, your health care is going to cost more,” Hovde told public affairs channel WisconsinEye.

Tammy Baldwin

Hovde is running against Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

Tom Brenner/Reuters

The banking and real estate mogul—who’s been labeled a “carpetbagger” over his luxurious California mansion and who invested in Bermuda-based insurance accounts that allowed him to avoid paying U.S. corporate taxes—spouted this idea during a July 2012 sitdown with the TV program but it wasn’t widely reported at the time.

“Look, we have an explosion of Type 2 diabetes right now. Explosion. Obesity is off the charts. You know, we’re removing people from being responsible for their own health,” Hovde said.

“If they all of a sudden started to realize that they’re going to pay more for their health care by consuming, you know, by consuming massive amounts of soda every day or fatty foods and not exercising, maybe they would change their behavioral patterns.”

Hovde then claimed obesity was a “personal choice.”

“It’s a personal choice,” he said, “but there should be consequences to those personal choices. Fine, you want to do that, you become obese, your health care is going to cost more. Or, the quality—or not the quality, but the amount of health care may go down, because you may not have the money to afford it.

“You have to force personal responsibility back to people, and also make them smart consumers.”

Hovde’s campaign didn’t return messages seeking comment.

His old commentary comes to light amid a national conversation around weight-loss drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy, and after Oprah Winfrey’s TV special centering on treatments and the stigma people face when overweight.

It also arrives as Democrats eye health care as a major issue in the 2024 presidential election, with President Biden celebrating the ACA’s 14th anniversary this weekend with an ad blitz and events spotlighting his record on the legislation. Since last fall, Trump has vowed to dismantle Obamacare if elected to a second term, despite a record number of people enrolling in health plans through its insurance marketplace.

Obesity experts told The Daily Beast remarks such as Hovde’s are discriminatory and show a lack of understanding about obesity as a disease.

Melanie Jay, an associate professor of medicine at NYU and director of the NYU Langone Comprehensive Program on Obesity Research, pointed out that the American Medical Association has deemed obesity a disease for a decade. “Personal behaviors do play a role in every chronic disease but obesity is as heritable as height,” she said.

“We have a very obesogenic environment, no doubt, and it’s interacting with people’s genes and that’s why over time people are getting heavier,” Jay told The Daily Beast, adding that “willpower doesn’t really play a role” in the disease.

Several factors built into the American environment can lead to obesity, including easy access to high-calorie foods, jobs that are more sedentary, and prescription drugs that put on pounds. “There’s lots of reasons, but it’s not the person’s fault that they’ve developed obesity,” Jay said.

Jay said that Hovde’s comments singling out obesity as something that should raise people’s insurance rates reveals that “either you’re not understanding or you’re really discriminating against people who have a chronic disease.”

“It’s assuming that obesity is some sort of moral failing that people need to be punished for,” she said. “That’s not true.

She added: “It’s a pretty awful and dangerous thing to say.”

Eric Hovde

Eric Hovde

Douglas Graham/Roll Call via Getty

“We already have people who don’t want to get health care because they are ashamed or internalize the shame,” Jay said. “And then if you make them pay more, you just get barriers to care, and it’s gonna make everything worse.”

David S. Seres, MD, professor of medicine in the Institute of Human Nutrition and Director of Medical Nutrition at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, said of Hovde’s comments: “This person clearly lacks any credibility where health-care policy is concerned.”

“It’d be like charging people more who get cancer or have heart attacks that are due to genetics, or due to the polluted environment, or to the overabundance of unhealthy food and a lack of access to healthy food that is the current environment in which a lot of people live. This would be plain and simple blaming the victim.”

Dr. Angela Fitch, president of the Obesity Medicine Association, said, “We can’t create a health-care system where people who are sicker, by whatever nature, have to pay more money.” She added that treatment of the disease “needs to be a standard benefit on health plans.”

In 2011, then Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer proposed (and eventually dropped) a similar cost-saving measure that got national attention: an annual $50 surcharge for Medicaid recipients who have obesity and fail to work with a physician’s treatment plan.

Private companies have also penalized workers who are overweight with insurance surcharges, and CVS Caremark made headlines in 2013 for requiring employees enrolled in its insurance plan to disclose their weights or pay a $600 annual penalty.

Joe Nadglowski, president and CEO of the nonprofit Obesity Action Coalition, told The Daily Beast that “obesity is not a personal choice.”

“Penalization of people with obesity in any facet of life, whether it be employment, health care, education and so on, is a clear example of weight bias in today's society and most certainly not ethical,” Nadglowski said in an email. “Individuals affected by obesity deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Before his WisconsinEye interview, Hovde also employed the “personal responsibility” narrative in a talk with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, saying low-income people shouldn’t go without medical care but “we also have to have people stand on their own two feet and start focusing on their health.”

“We have an obesity crisis,” Hovde told the editorial board. “We’ve taken away people’s self responsibility to try to take care of their own health.” He then made a puzzling correlation, claiming “the more we’ve moved to a socialized system of medicine,” the higher the country’s rates of Type 2 diabetes have become.

Seres threw cold water on Hovde’s claim. “I could similarly say, and probably have more credibility, that our political support of industry has led to an overabundance of high-calorie, unhealthy, highly processed foods,” Seres said, “and there’s certainly a lot more scientific evidence for these predisposing people to diabetes.”

GOP Candidate Eric Hovde Says He’s a Uniter—but Donates to the MAGA Extreme

Hovde’s suggested insurance penalty would impact a number of residents, data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services shows. The state reported that 68 percent of adults have a body mass index consistent with being overweight (36.1 percent) or having obesity (32.3 percent), figures that are just above the national average.

Hovde was still focused on health care in 2017, bashing Senate Republicans on a conservative radio show for failing to repeal and replace the ACA.

This year, he’s continued the crusade. His campaign site argues Obamacare burdened middle-class people with higher premiums and mentions his own multiple sclerosis diagnosis as proof he’s experienced “the failures of our healthcare system.”

While his page attacks the ACA, it does not offer any alternatives.

Hovde’s opposition runs counter to polls showing a majority of Americans support the law—and, according to The Hill, Senate GOP leaders saying they’re unwilling to take up the battle this cycle.

According to a February KFF poll, 59 percent of adults hold a favorable opinion of the ACA while 39 percent view it negatively. And 67 percent of respondents called its protections related to pre-existing conditions “very important.”

Other KFF data shows that a quarter of non-elderly Wisconsinites, or 883,000, would have been denied health coverage prior to the ACA because of pre-existing conditions.

GOP Guv Candidate Mark Robinson on Obamacare: It’s an Effort to ‘Enslave Everybody’

Since Hovde entered the ring, he’s billed himself as a “uniter” amid toxic partisan divisions, but past soundbites have come back to haunt him.

The 19th reported Hovde once blamed societal problems on single moms, and The Daily Cardinal, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student paper, exposed his comments attacking young people as lazy and drug users. Rolling Stone revealed Hovde was against the commercialization of alcohol—in a state where it’s a major part of the economy.

The Daily Beast has previously reported on Hovde’s donations and ties to extreme Republicans, including Sen. Ron Johnson and Congressman Derrick Van Orden, recently in the press for shouting “lies” during Biden’s State of the Union.

Hovde is just one well-heeled candidate the GOP is banking on to flip the Senate. One poll shows Baldwin, the two-term incumbent, leads Hovde by 3 points, and that people rate the economy their No. 1 issue, followed by health care.

“If you are about to have surgery, don’t you want the best doctor?” Hovde tweeted on Thursday. “If you are about to head on a plane, don’t you want the best pilot? We have a dire economic situation on our hands. I am the best candidate in this race equipped with the skills to lead us out of it.” Not everyone was buying it.

One X user replied, “You’re not the next doctor, fella.”

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