Kara Eastman is the political outsider who’s on a mission to fix America’s broken health-care system

The November 2018 midterm elections are coming up, and more women than ever are running for Congress. In our She’s Running series, HelloGiggles is highlighting some of the young, progressive women candidates who are reshaping the face of politics just by campaigning — and could have a hand in reshaping our future. Still need to register to vote? Do it here.

The last time Kara Eastman saw her mother, she was sick and sitting at her kitchen table with a pile of medical bills stacked higher than her head. Her mother had been diagnosed with cancer for the fifth time. She’d been ill for most of Eastman’s adult life, and despite being on Medicare with disability benefits, she was still paying hundreds a month—and at times, thousands—for health care. Even after her mother died last fall, Eastman says she and her husband were still receiving five to 10 bills in the mail every day.

Today, Eastman is running for Congress to fix America’s broken health-care system. As the Democratic nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives in Nebraska’s 2nd district, her chief campaign promise—which already carried her to victory in her primary in May—is “Medicare for all.”

“We’ve knocked a lot of doors in this campaign, over 100,000 doors, and every day I talk to people who tell me they’re facing a very similar thing—either outrageous health-care costs or choosing not to go to the emergency room because it’s too expensive—and so they’re treating their kids at home,” Eastman told HelloGiggles in a recent interview. “Health care as part of a free-market system is challenging, and I don’t think that it’s working for Americans.”

Eastman’s experience caring for her ailing mother throughout cancer treatment and seeing firsthand how sickness can financially wreck a family has directly influenced her views on health care, she told me. She sees access to quality health care as a right, not a privilege, and she believes people should not have to pay out of pocket for health care in a country as wealthy as the United States.

The position is one characteristic of the progressive left wing, one which has yet to be embraced by the Democratic Party establishment. A social worker from the nonprofit world new to politics, Eastman is, in all ways, a political outsider: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—the official campaign arm of the House Democrats—even gave its support to her more moderate opponent (former Rep. Brad Ashford) in her primary, making her surprise victory even more impressive. Eastman’s rise has been characterized as a symbol of the party’s “leftward lurch” and a signal that voters are looking for more radical proposals and ideas from their representatives than ever before. The other key issues in her platform include free college tuition, increasing the minimum wage, common-sense gun safety regulations, and combating climate change.

Heading into November, Eastman faces a highly competitive race against Republican incumbent Rep. Don Bacon. Nebraska is a pretty red state overall, but the second district (where Eastman is running) is one of its most liberal-leaning areas and has a history of tight elections with victories claimed through single-digit percentage points. Democrats have targeted Eastman’s election as one of its key races where they could potentially flip the seat from red to blue in their larger effort to reclaim the House.

We hopped on the phone with Eastman (a few days before Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court) to flesh out her vision for transforming health care in America, her views on socialism, and her unexpected similarities to President Trump. (Yes, really.)  

HelloGiggles: You’ve been pretty outspoken about the Kavanaugh nomination and the numerous sexual assault accusations against him. Why have these events struck such a chord with you?

Kara Eastman: This is about nominating somebody to the Supreme Court where this is one of the highest jobs you can get in the country. While I believe that Kavanaugh has the right to go through some sort of due process and figure out what really happened, and I think these hearings are really important and we’ll get more information, it also just seems that given the amount of information that we have, when you’re applying for a job like this, perhaps this kind of information would just simply disqualify you. It would seem to be the right thing for him to just withdraw his candidacy.

This is not good for the country. This is further feeding into the divisiveness in Washington, and in particular, I think this is just not good for women in general. I hear from a lot of women today that this is having a triggering effect on them and obviously taking us back to Anita Hill. As a woman running for office right now, it just feels like this is part of a bigger picture. We need people running the country and people making the decisions, especially people making really, really important decisions on behalf of women, to be people of integrity.

HG: In the age of #MeToo, a lot of the work is being done in the public sector, in the media, and in legal investigations. Do you think that Congress has a role to play in changing the way we’re talking about sexual assault and the way sexual assault is handled in this country?

KE: Absolutely. As policymakers, we have obligations. There are some laws out there that are actually fairly discriminatory against women that we should be changing, but also I think members of Congress have roles simply as pundits and as people who have access to a bully pulpit to be outspoken and also to be people who model good behavior for the rest of the country.

HG: So let’s talk about your campaign. You’re new to politics. What made you decide to jump in and run for Congress this year in particular?

KE: In 2016, and this was before the presidential election, my mom was diagnosed with cancer for the fifth time and was prescribed a pill that was $2,500. We were having a conversation about that, and she mentioned this in passing—and I still can’t believe a pill costs that much—and she told me that the real concern for her was that that was in addition to the $800 a month she was already paying every month for prescriptions. And I had to stop her and say, “What do you mean you’re paying $800 a month?” My mom’s on disability. I knew exactly how much her finances were, how much she was bringing in, and how much she could afford to spend, and I knew she couldn’t afford $800, let alone $2,500.

At that time, again before the election, we were hearing so much about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, but it seemed like that kind of information was being left out. I don’t even feel like we were hearing too much about these outrageous costs for prescriptions, and since we’ve launched the campaign, I’ve heard so many people tell me how much they’re paying in prescriptions. A woman told me she’s paying $18,000 a month for her family’s prescriptions.

So that really started me down this path, but also I have a background in social work. I’ve been working in nonprofits my whole career—in nonprofits that solve problems. I’ve worked at homeless shelters, domestic violence organizations, I started a national volunteer program for people with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and then for the last 12 years I’ve been building a nonprofit locally called the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance.

I’m also elected to the board of our community college, so that is an elected position, though not necessarily a stepping stone to Congress. But people would say to me, “Well, would you ever consider running for higher office?” And my answer was always, well, I don’t think people like me really get elected. I don’t have a background in political science. I’m a social worker. I’m fairly outspoken. I’ve been fighting for poor people and working families my whole career. I’m not really the person you think of when you think of somebody in Congress.

And then once the election happened in 2016, it seemed like we were willing to elect anybody. So I thought, well, okay, I represent a lot of those same things—somebody who wants to change the system, somebody who’s gonna get in there and shake things up a little bit, but also I can make pretty sane decisions for the country.

HG: Oh my goodness, are you relating to President Trump right now?

KE: (laughs) Well, I don’t know if I’d take it that far. But I think when people talk about the reasons that they voted for him, it did strike a chord with me. Some of those things represent who I am too, just without all of the craziness.

HG: Would you say that there are some aspects of the Trump appeal that you see in yourself and see represented in what you’re offering and what your platform is?

KE: I’ve been building nonprofit businesses my whole career. I do believe that the system is broken and that we need people to get in there and change things and shake things up. I do believe that politicians are perceived as being corrupt and that money has way too much influence on our political system. So I think some of the things that Trump ran on, unfortunately as president, he’s turned his back on those things. He’s not doing those things. I mean, draining the swamp—he’s done the opposite.

But I think right now more than ever, there’s just this feeling of desperation for our country. I’m somebody that’s been fighting for kids in particular, and having a 17-year-old daughter go through this and see a president who was basically a sex offender who beat a woman who was overqualified for the position, and then everything that’s happened since then—rollbacks of environmental protections when I’m absolutely concerned about the state of our planet and about climate change, the idea that we haven’t moved forward on any common-sense gun safety regulation when my daughter’s afraid to go to school, and now even the way that people talk about Brett Kavanaugh and his confirmation and trying to navigate that with my daughter…

HG: … who is the same age as Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford were at the time of the assault, right?

KE: Right. I think for a lot of us who marched in the Women’s March or felt such a sense of loss and disappointment and despair by Trump’s presidency, it’s kind of like every one of us is doing our own part right now, and this was just something that I felt like—okay, I have a stomach for this. I can do this.

HG: You’ve been very much cast as a sort of political outsider. Even within the Democratic sphere, you’re someone who “defeated the establishment” back in May when you won your primary. There’s this larger conversation about the battle between the more progressive wing and the more mainstream Democrats. Where do you see yourself in this struggle?

KE: The interesting thing, I think, about having somebody with a social work background enter into this arena is that by training we’re taught to bring people together to form coalitions to solve problems. That’s what I’ve done my whole career, and that’s what I want to bring to Congress. At the same time, I didn’t have support from any establishment in the primary, and because of our refusal of taking corporate PAC money and just the way we’ve run the campaign, this is a people-powered campaign. I think at this point, we have over 80,000 individual donors. Our average donation is less than $20.

This is in part a reaction to what’s happening in our country, but I think it also just speaks to people’s desire to bring government back to the people. We have to remind people that we are in charge of the United States government. It’s not in charge of us. It’s not that everyone’s always going to agree with me, but as their candidate and hopefully their congressperson, I’m beholden to them.

HG: Your main campaign issue has been around Medicare for all. This is what a lot of democratic socialists have put at the forefront of their visions for America. Do you see yourself as someone who agrees with socialism, or does democratic socialism speak to you in some way?

KE: Honestly, I don’t identify as a democratic socialist. I’m not endorsed by them. I’ve been of course pegged by the Republicans as socialist as a scare tactic, and I think that’s the problem with that word right now. It’s used to scare people. And so when people talk about a system like Medicare for all—I was having a conversation with a Republican last night. He said, “Well I’m not in favor of government-run health care.” I said, “Oh, that’s interesting. I’m not either. I’m in favor of government-funded health care that’s privately operated and delivered.” And he said, “Oh! Yeah, me too!” 

It’s interesting how this is all perceived. Part of this is, it’s complicated. We now understand that there were a lot of people out there that were against Obamacare because it had Obama in its name, and they didn’t understand it was the same thing as the Affordable Care Act. I think that’s what’s happening too with a system like Medicare for all. When it’s framed as “socialist medicine” or “universal health care” or “single-payer,” people don’t always know that these are all the same ideas but maybe just a little bit different practices or different from a policy standpoint. I try to be very clear to say I believe health care is and should be a right. I don’t want anybody to go through what my mom went through. We have to tackle the prescription drug problem in this country, and we don’t have time to wait for policymakers to think this is a politically opportune time to work on health care. We have to do it now.

HG: So talking about Medicare for all, how would you envision such a system? What would your proposal be? How would it get funded?

KE: My ideal is already out there. The Expanded and Improved Medicare-for-All Act. I’ve read it, I’ve studied it, I’ve looked at the data around it, and it actually is the best plan that we have out there in terms of providing health care to everybody. If we look at the average family of four right now making about $54,000 a year, they’re paying $10,000 a year in health premiums, co-pays, deductibles, out-of-pocket costs. My husband and I have our insurance through his job at Creighton University. Our daughter has a knee issue, and every month she has to go get an MRI, and we end up paying $400 for that MRI. And I don’t really understand why. We have no menu of options. We get no information about, well, an MRI costs this, but you’re only charged $400—which, $400 a month is a lot of money!

So for that average family paying that $10,000 a year—with a system like Medicare for all, where we’re talking about having a fee that would be maybe $800 a year for families—who would choose the $10,000 over $800? So this is a very affordable option.

If we look at the projected costs for Medicare for all, and there’s all kinds of back-and-forth data on this, but it does look like it would actually save the federal government money because the federal government is now projected to spend so much in health care over the next decade. And yet our outcomes are terrible when it comes to health in this country. This is a critical time for us to say, we actually can’t afford the path that we’re on. And so saying that a system like this just doesn’t work and we can’t do it isn’t actually accurate information. And maybe we have to start by a regional approach or piloting some of this to start moving forward, but why wouldn’t we do it?

HG: What’s your vision for higher education in America? I know you’ve put forth that families under a certain income shouldn’t have to pay for college.

KE: You look at something like the College For All Act, which makes two-year colleges tuition-free. I’m not a proponent of anything being 100% free—I actually think you need a little bit of skin in the game; that’s how I’ve run my nonprofits—but at least making it so that people aren’t drowning in debt. We have a student debt crisis in this country. The amount of debt is, well, similar to what the Republicans just did in terms of increasing our debt nationally.

When we look at the data of what it would look like if we did provide that free tuition to students, the economic boon is tremendous. It also allows people to access education that they need and deserve and then go into a career, and at a place like Metropolitan Community College [where I serve on the board and] where we’re so active in the trades and just invested about $100 million to build buildings that would be directly for people in the trades, there’s so much innovation and excitement that’s happening. We have to find ways to provide inroads for people to access this education.

I’ve also been talking to some people about the loan cancellation programs that people are proposing, and I think there’s a lot of interesting data out there about how much money we would see flooding into our economy, as a boon to our economy, if we were to create a system like that. And the nice thing about something like that is that it works for rich people and for people living in poverty. I think there are a lot of creative solutions right now, but we have to address it.

HG: I guess the big problem is that it’s easy to talk about these bold and radical ideas out here before you suddenly have to battle with 500 other representatives from other states who have very different views of what’s “feasible.”

KE: Well, it’s interesting because, again, this is one of those things where it gets pegged out as “socialism” or “handouts.” But when we look at the economic impact—and I think right now when Republicans can no longer claim to be the fiscally responsible party because of what they’ve done to our deficit—why not look at the economic impact that this would have? It’s very possible that if we provided access to people to go to two- and four-year public colleges debt-free for people earning under $125,000 a year, it’s possible that that would [balance out financially]. Right now the administrative costs to administer student loan programs and going after students who are defaulting and all of the sundry programs that are out there—it looks like it might be a wash in terms of costs. So what is the benefit of charging outrageous amounts of money in tuition and drowning our students in debt?

HG: Like you said, the data is there. The problem is just this lack of willingness to be a little bit radical. How can we move this conversation forward and make people feel a little bit less terrified of these possibilities?

KE: I feel like in some ways they are moving forward. If you look at the way that Medicare for all is now being talked about and where it polls, I mean, 51% of Republicans support it now. That’s a huge shift. When we talk about the economic impact of student loan debt, most people get that. Most people are concerned. That’s the number two thing we hear at the doors. Health care being one, and student loans are number two and people concerned about education in general. And senior citizens are facing student loans as well—20% of seniors have student loan debt. This is something that impacts everybody.

Really it’s a matter of—one, we have to vote, and you have to vote for people who are running because they want to change the system and want to see things changed. But two, it’s an interesting time where a lot of these things that perhaps sounded radical in the past are now sounding a lot more common sense because they actually make fiscal sense.

This interview has been edited and condensed.