Tragedy spurs Democrat Amy Vilela to activism, then a bid for Congress
Amy Vilela, a Democrat who hopes to represent Nevada’s 4th Congressional District as embattled Rep. Ruben Kihuen steps back from politics, had an early education in what it’s like to struggle in the U.S.
She was born in Southern Maryland to a tobacco farmer-turned-ironworker who had a sixth grade education, and a high school graduate who was a secretary. Their financial situation took a turn when her parents divorced during her childhood.
And then, after becoming a teen mother, Vilela discovered all on her own how costly it could be to be poor.
“I was homeless with my children at times. I know there was a couple of years where every night, I would just eat cheese sandwiches, so I could feed my children healthy meals,” Vilela, 43, said in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “You cannot afford just to pay the basics. The late fees keep piling up … You just get on the whole cycle of trying to pay off really high payday loans, yet you need the money to survive. That was really tough. There was a lot of struggle during that. But, I learned how to really become a fighter through that time period.”
Vilela stands out in a large field of Democrats vying for Kihuen’s seat because of her endorsements from progressive groups such as Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, National Nurses United and The People for Bernie, which aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ vision for the country in the last election cycle. A political newcomer, she’s up against several candidates who have held elected office before, including former Rep. Steven Horsford, state Sen. Pat Spearman and Regent Allison Stephens.
On her website, she credits public assistance with helping her overcome challenges and argues for normalizing, not cutting back, on such programs.
“We must stop thinking of vital social programs as a ‘safety net’ to catch us when we fall,” she writes. “Policies that meet everyone's basic needs – a guaranteed livable wage, access to free public education and healthcare, affordable housing – need to be recognized as the concrete foundation upon which our society is built, allowing us all to grow, thrive, and reach our full potential with equity and dignity.”
Her own situation took a turn for the better when, against the wishes of her very traditional parents, she decided to attend college, earning a bachelor’s degree in business and accounting from Park University in Missouri. She later became a chief financial officer, first for the nonprofit Tammy Lynn Center for Developmental Disabilities and then for Foresee Consulting, a construction management consulting firm.
She married her husband, David, an Air Force pilot, nine years ago and moved to Nevada for his job almost eight years ago. They’re raising four children, ages 4 to 23.
But the real motivation for seeking elected office came when tragedy struck her oldest child, turning her into a health-care activist and leading her to campaign full-time for a seat in the House.
Vilela figured she was set after moving to Las Vegas and making a comfortable income in her finance career. Her 22-year-old daughter, Shalynne, had decided to move in with her from Kansas City while studying to become a registered nurse.
That’s when tragedy struck.
Shalynne had driven out from Kansas City and arrived with a leg that was red and swollen. The family didn’t pay much mind to it, thinking it was a result of the long drive and that it would resolve itself.
But a few days later, when Vilela was out of state on business, she got a call from her husband saying that Shalynne had fallen and was in excruciating pain. Vilela directed them to go to the ER.
There, hospital staff started asking about her insurance. Shalynne didn’t think she had any.
“I said, look, don’t worry about the cost. We can handle the cost. Just be seen,” Vilela recalls.
In spite of Shalynne’s pleas for something for the pain, and for an MRI, the staff did an X-ray.
“She called me from the back, and she was crying,” Vilela said. “‘I’m in so much pain, mommy, and they’re not helping me.’ I’m like, ‘Shalynne, you must not have told them what you need.' And, she said, ‘I did, I did. They’re not helping me.’ And, they sent her off with a knee brace, told her not to take it off except for to shower, and to follow up with a specialist.”
Shalynne started the process of enrolling in Medicaid in Nevada, but didn’t think the situation was an emergency. But Vilela believes they missed all the signs that Shalynne had a blood clot: she was African American and Caucasian, had a sickle cell trait, was a casual smoker, was on birth control and had just driven 22 hours on an injured knee.
“It would have cost a couple of thousand dollars to treat her,” Vilela said.
Shalynne flew out to Kansas City to finalize her move. After that, the blood clot broke off and became a pulmonary embolism. Vilela recalls when she first arrived at her daughter’s bedside.
“Every time she would breathe … her eyes would flutter open. I stood there holding her hand, saying Shalynne, don’t give up on this. You have to fight, Shalynne, you have to fight. And, eventually, she lost all brain activity.”
Vilela believes that Shalynne was actually insured based on her recent employment, but she didn’t think she was, and that her statements that she didn’t have insurance prompted the hospital to reduce the level of care. She’s suing Centennial Hills Hospital in federal court; the lawsuit has survived more than a dozen motions to dismiss and is in the discovery phase. Vilela, who believes the case is only the second Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) lawsuit taken up at the federal level, hopes the case might set precedent.
After her daughter’s death, Vilela and her husband started researching. Her husband told her about “single-payer” health care, noting that if Shalynne had been in Brazil or Saudi Arabia, she would have received care.
“But, here, in one of the greatest nations in this world, she died because she did not have proof of insurance,” Vilela said. “What a loss for this country. All of the money that we put in as a country to educate her, and the 30,000 other people that die every year from a lack of health care. What a loss to this country.”
Centennial Hills Hospital didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the claims on Wednesday evening. But asked about the lawsuit a year ago by KTNV, the hospital denied it provided a reduced level of care based on Shalynne’s insurance status.
“Centennial Hills Hospital places the greatest priority on the care and safety of its patients regardless of their ability to pay,” it said in a statement. “Centennial Hills Hospital does not require insurance before rendering treatment in accordance with its legal obligations. This patient’s insurance status played no role in the care and treatment she received. She was assessed by appropriate medical personnel, screened, had x-rays taken and was evaluated before being discharged. At no point did Centennial Hills require proof of insurance, demand payment for services, or withhold treatment based upon her insurance status. While our hearts go out to the family of this young woman, she was cared for as any other patient presenting to the hospital for care would have been treated.”
Taking up politics
Vilela became outspoken about health-care issues, especially after meeting Nina Turner, a former Ohio state lawmaker and current president at Our Revolution, at a single-payer health-care conference.
“I’m just a grieving mother at this point. I hadn’t done anything politically yet. And, she looked at me … And, she’s like, Amy, you have to dig deep. You have to dig so deep inside your soul, and you have to learn how to turn that grief into power and action,” Vilela said. “And that’s what I needed to hear.”
Vilela became politically active, organizing health-care rallies in Nevada after founding a state chapter of Healthcare-NOW!, which is the activist arm of PNHP (Physicians for a National Healthcare Plan). The group touts its success in lobbying Rep. Dina Titus to support H.R. 676, a Medicare for All bill.
But her decision to run didn’t come until last year, when she attended a forum hosted by Rep. Ruben Kihuen in hopes of securing a commitment from him to sign on to the same measure
“I thought that he would be the simplest person to talk to about this because he’s on the Progressive caucus. This is part of their platform. This is part of their summer of progress … I viewed him as being the one that would be most willing to go forward with health care for everyone.”
At a forum that was videotaped about two years after Shalynne’s death, on Mother’s Day weekend in 2017, she told Kihuen her story while clutching a lock of her daughter’s hair.
“I remember I was telling him the story about how my daughter passed. I remember I even shared with him how they had to pull me away from her coffin because I could not believe that this is the last time I was going to touch her,” Vilela recalled.
But when it came to closing the deal and getting Kihuen to commit to a single-payer plan, she was underwhelmed by his response — that he needed to focus on fighting back against Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare.
“For me, it’s not that I oppose HR 676. For me right now it is of utmost importance of spending every bit of energy I have to protect what we have right now,” he responded. “I’m not sitting here opposing it, I’m not here saying it’s the worst bill in the world. I’m not bought and paid for by anyone.”
The response drew protests from activists in the audience, who asked him why he couldn’t do both.
“It really hit me at that moment,” she said. “Shalynne was a constituent of this district. I am your constituent. And, this hospital is in your district. And, you’re not even interested in finding out what we need to do now to stop needless deaths of your constituents. You should not be in office. You are not a public celebrity. You are a public servant.”
Vilela said she was also bothered as she saw Kihuen’s votes. She cited an instance when Kihuen was one of only 12 House Democrats supporting a bill aimed at fighting the gang MS-13; it raised concerns from civil liberties groups because it doesn’t provide a standard of evidence for determining when someone is in a gang.
(On Thursday, Kihuen's office explained the vote by saying: "The Congressman has always maintained that individuals who migrate to the United States and commit violent crimes or become involved with gangs have no place in our country. Our office will continue to talk with Senate colleagues to improve the bill, and is focused on working toward comprehensive immigration reform in order to fix our broken immigration system.")
Vilela believes it’s corporate and special interest donations that are driving the actions of so many in Congress, and believes those corporations are seeking not good governance but a return on investment from their campaign donations.
She said concerns about donor influence over candidates prompted her to jump into the race in July. At the time, Kihuen wasn’t facing the sexual harassment allegations that led him to avoid re-election, and as his only primary opponent, her bid looked like a moonshot.
“I knew it was a very unpopular thing to do, let me tell you,” she said. “I had the foresight to know that we had a flawed representative.”
Since accusations against Kihuen emerged in early December, a large field of Democrats has jumped into the race. Vilela said her team has kept busy, knocking on some 6,000 doors so far in addition to thousands of phone calls.
For an outsider, Vilela had solid fundraising in the fourth quarter, raising $50,787, about two-thirds of it coming from donations of less than $200. The other candidates in the primary didn’t file reports for the fourth quarter because they joined the race after the deadline, so it’s too early to tell how her haul compares to her competitors.
Vilela believes she’s the most progressive candidate in the field and isn’t satisfied with those who aren’t unequivocally supporting progressive policies, especially Medicare for All.
“We keep on trying to fight against the policies that we don’t agree with by going right,” she said. “You need to go left. You need to give the people a reason to vote. You need to give them a reason to go to the polls. Being just anti-Trump is not enough. Being a moderate Democrat is certainly not the answer in what’s happening in this country.”
Updated at 12:45 p.m. on March 29, 2018 to add a statement from Kihuen on an anti-MS-13 bill.