Pa.’s physician-legislator Arvind Venkat talks gun control, medical debt relief and school funding

‘Apathy is absolutely the way to get decisions made that you don’t want,’ Venkat, D-Allegheny, told the Capital-Star

By: - Sunday April 2, 2023 7:41 am

Pa.’s physician-legislator Arvind Venkat talks gun control, medical debt relief and school funding

‘Apathy is absolutely the way to get decisions made that you don’t want,’ Venkat, D-Allegheny, told the Capital-Star

By: - 7:41 am

Pennsylvania Rep. Arvind Venkat, D-Allegheny, speaks at a gun violence prevention rally at the state Capitol in Harrisburg (Pa. House Democratic Caucus photo).

Pennsylvania Rep. Arvind Venkat, D-Allegheny, speaks at a gun violence prevention rally at the state Capitol in Harrisburg (Pa. House Democratic Caucus photo).

(*This story was updated at 8:49 a.m. on Sunday, 4/2/2023 to correctly reflect that state Rep. Arvind Venkat, D-Allegheny, is the first Indian-American elected to the state House.)

Pennsylvania Rep. Arvind Venkat, D-Allegheny, is the first Indian-American elected to the state *House and an emergency room physician. 

A Yale Medical School graduate, Venkat spoke with the Capital-Star about his legislative priorities, which include protecting reproductive rights, school funding, gun control measures, and alleviating medical debt for Pennsylvanians at the state level.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: You recently introduced legislation to establish a medical debt relief program in Pennsylvania. How much of your experience as a doctor informed this bill? 

Venkat: One of the great privileges of being an ER doc is that you get to take care of everyone, no questions asked. More and more patients are very sensitive, both to the cost of health care, and specifically to the debt they carry from health care. When I started practicing in this region 17 years ago, no one would ask me about the cost of care. And now, I will get questions regularly from patients who I see in the emergency department who I will tell them, ‘you need to be admitted to the hospital’ and they basically say, “I can’t afford that, it’s too costly and I’m going to have this burden.” 

So one of the things I campaigned on was how [we can] make healthcare  more affordable and accessible.

And this legislation is modeled on ones that have actually been pioneered in cities and counties across the country, including in the city of Pittsburgh, which included it in this most recent budget. It’s basically a partnership with an entity called RIP Medical Debt, which purchases distressed medical debt to forgive it, and to do it in a way that people are notified after their debt has been forgiven, that they no longer have that hanging over their head. For every dollar that is spent you can purchase and forgive up to $100 of debt. 

I think we have to meet people where they are. Sometimes we as political figures go to where there seems to be the most noise, and it's up to us as political leaders to reach out to everyone.

– Rep. Arvind Venkat, D-Allegheny

So for a relatively small appropriation, we at the state level would be able to help hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians and potentially forgive well over a billion dollars of medical debt., And it’s really a win-win-win for everybody involved. It’s obviously a win for the patients who no longer have this hanging over their head. It’s a good thing for providers as well because this is bad debt that sits on their books. And is an alternative to sending patients to a debt collector, who will similarly buy bad debt for pennies on the dollar and then turn around and try to harass people to collect dimes on the dollar. 

Q: We’re speaking on a day when two Pittsburgh high schools were evacuated for an active shooter threat that turned out to be a hoax, and the day after a deadly school shooting in Nashville. What could we be doing better to make sure guns don’t wind up in schools to be used in the murders of children?

A: This is a public health threat. I’ve spoken to that publicly; it’s something that I campaigned on. As an emergency physician, I’ve treated every type of gunshot victim you can imagine and ones that you don’t want to imagine. I’ve personally seen a toddler who got their parents’ gun and shot themselves and died in my emergency department. Something that I will certainly never forget.

So, I think we have to take a public health approach of harm reduction. And what I say to colleagues, what I say to families, what I say to the public is, if it’s the person and not the gun, then we should be able to pass things like red flag laws and safe storage laws and reporting of lost and stolen weapons and enhanced background checks. Because those do nothing to a law-abiding citizen. And [they] have been proven to keep guns out of the hands of those who’ve shown a propensity for violence, or or who are in a crisis and could use that access to guns to create great harm. 

I think that we no longer can accept the answer of “all we can do is thoughts and prayers, and there’s nothing else we can do.” We are the only industrialized country in the world that has this issue. We have a similar level of mental illness and other societal ills.The difference between the U.S. and other countries is access, widespread, unimpeded access to firearms. And I think that is where we’ve got to put our energy at this point. 

Q: Another issue that you campaigned on was school funding. What are your thoughts on the latest progress there, and what else do you think needs to be done to make sure that school funding is more equitable across the board?

A: I think there are three things that need to happen. The first is, it’s supposed to be a 50-50 split between communities and the state when it comes to public school education. And clearly, the state has never met its obligation. I think the previous administration and now [Gov. Josh] Shapiro [has] made a commitment that they’re going to raise the state’s contribution to public education, and I’m very much in support of that. 

We need to have very close scrutiny of cyber charter and charter funding. I represent three of the most affluent school districts, certainly in Allegheny County, if not in the Commonwealth. And they spent millions of dollars on cyber-charter tuition, which is not remotely equal to the infrastructure needs or the outcomes of the students in those programs. I have nothing against charter schools or cyber-charter schools, but it needs to be an apples-to-apples comparison in terms of the funding needs, as well as what happens with the outcomes that are being measured.

The third thing I think that needs to happen is I think we need to have an honest discussion that there’s no such thing as a perfect funding formula. I agree that property taxes are not the ideal way to do this, because I don’t think any child’s education should be determined by their ZIP code, right? But we’re not going to keep people from moving to communities based on the quality of schools or whatever the circumstances are. 

We’re going to need to have an honest discussion about what a funding mechanism is going to be if it’s not going to be property tax based or not exclusively property tax based. Sales taxes are largely regressive. We’re constitutionally prevented in Pennsylvania from having a graduated income tax. A lot of people look at marijuana, but the experience in other states is that marijuana revenue is pretty tenuous, and comes down very quickly, and there’s a lot of issues that I would have concerns about related to marijuana legalization. 

And so I think there is not a perfect mechanism. And it’s probably going to be a combination of those three things.

Q: What do you think Pennsylvania needs to do to protect reproductive rights?

A: The results that we saw in the state House and the governor’s race and even in the state senate, is that we are not going to change the law in Pennsylvania, which preserves abortion righst. 

But if the federal judge in Texas, as is anticipated, puts medication-related abortions beyond reach, it creates new barriers. I’ve cared for hundreds of pregnant women. I’ve talked to women and treated women in virtually every circumstance where this issue arises. I feel very strongly that abortion, and abortion rights, are part of you know, healthy reproductive health care and safe reproductive health care.

Pennsylvania voters need to know that their votes will determine whether reproductive rights are preserved in Pennsylvania. We saw in the last legislative session, what happens when we have an anti choice majority in the General Assembly: one of the key things they try and do is to overturn abortion rights. 

What I’d like to see legislatively, is that we pass laws that prevent our healthcare providers from being criminalized, because we are seeing hundreds of patients who are coming into Pennsylvania for abortion care, because they are not able to get it in surrounding states — West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky — and we’re seeing efforts in those states to potentially criminalize medical practice. And as a physician and as a legislator, I think that’s intolerable.

Q: What should Democrats be doing at the state level to engage with GenZ voters—who made such a difference in the 2022 midterms— to reassure them that politicians in the Democratic Party have their interests in mind?

A: I think we have to meet people where they are. Sometimes we as political figures go to where there seems to be the most noise, and it’s up to us as political leaders to reach out to everyone. I’m the father of three teenagers, and my oldest just turned 18, so she’ll be voting for the first time in the May primary. I certainly talked with them, they were part of my candidacy, and hopefully, I influenced their perspectives, because, it’s cliché to say, but if I’m not thinking about the future of Pennsylvania, which is their generation, I’m not doing my job. 

But I think it’s also a responsibility of citizenship. What I say to anyone who has asked me is that we get the political leaders we deserve. The most important things that I would say to any voter about getting engaged with the political process: certainly vote, but also meet with people. Get organized. Make sure that the issues that matter to you are being communicated to state legislators. 

Across the board, 90% of the governing that happens, happens at the state and local level. But 90% of people have no idea who their state and local officials are. Apathy is absolutely the way to get decisions made that you don’t want.

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