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West Mich. Democrat's Medicare confrontation with VP Pence goes viral

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Correction: Dr. Rob Davidson works out of Newaygo County, which has a 15.6% poverty rate. An earlier version of this story misstated the county and the poverty rate.

A cordial greeting in Iowa between a Democratic west Michigan doctor and Vice President Mike Pence Thursday night in Iowa went viral on Twitter after the doctor asked the vice president about possible cuts to Medicaid and Medicare. 

Twitter profile photo for Dr. Rob Davidson

"As an emergency doctor, I was worried about ... plans to cut Medicare, and then the rollout today of cutting Medicaid," Dr. Rob Davidson, clad in black scrubs, said after Pence approached the table and offered handshakes to Davidson and another patron. "I work in one of the poorest counties in Michigan, and my patients depend on expanded Medicaid. So how is that going to affect my patients?"

"I hadn't heard about cutting Medicaid," Pence said. 

"They're talking about cutting the Medicaid expansion we got with the Affordable Care Act," Davidson said, on a video that had 3.5 million views as of Monday morning. "I'm talking about the president and what your administration right now is doing ... Is that a good idea, or a bad idea?"

"I think you're oversimplifying it," Pence said.

Davidson is a Democrat from Spring Lake who lost 55%-43% to U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, in the 2018 election. 

The Trump administration has proposed revamping Medicaid expansion by letting states opt out of part of the current federal funding program and instead seek a fixed payment each year in exchange for gaining unprecedented flexibility. It seeks to keep the Obamacare program financially sustainable while protecting the poorest patients and the disabled, according to the administration.

Medicaid and Medicare officials also argue a lack of oversight on Medicaid threatens its viability by allowing people to get health coverage even though they earn too much to qualify. So they have been proposing rules to allow more opportunities to verify eligibility.

Tricia Neuman, director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program on Medicare Policy, told CNBC it is “hard to predict how these proposals would affect patient care if they became law." 

In a second video, Pence points both pointer fingers at Davidson and says: "You check out what we did when I was governor of Indiana. ...We expanded coverage. We used consumer-directed health care. People were able to take more ownership over their health care."

"If the Trump administration, if you want to expand Medicare, that would be great," Davidson says. 

"I think Medicaid, as you know, has a lot of problems," Pence says. 

"It's been a godsend to the patients I serve, in one of the poorest counties in Michigan," said Davidson. A staffer with the Chicago-based Committee to Protect Medicare, the advocacy group Davidson leads, told The News that Davidson works out of Gerber Memorial Hospital in Newaygo County.

Newaygo has a 15.6% poverty rate, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, which is 1.5 percentage points above the state average for Michigan, 14.1%.

Davidson studied at the Michigan State College of Human Medicine, according to his biography. Davidson splits his time between practicing medicine and leading the committee.

"People I see in the emergency department who can't get primary care doctors, once they got Medicaid, they could get primary care doctors," Davidson said. "They stay out of the ER. They work more. They actually contributed to our community more....(possible cuts) are going to be a real negative in their lives."

"Our vision is for state-based innovation and reform to improve opportunities..." Pence says before his voice trails off as Davidson responds.

Pence hears Davidson out and says "I respectfully disagree" before they shake hands a second time. 

"Thanks for your career and your care," Pence said. "Really. Truly."

After receiving tens of thousands of retweets for the video with Pence, Davidson wrote Monday morning on Twitter that "I appreciate the compliments, but this has nothing to do with me. This is an administration that is so out of touch with what’s going on in the lives of regular people that they continue to plan cuts to #Medicare, #Medicaid and the #ACA."