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Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard (20) runs with the ball during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday in Kansas City, Mo.

Former Gohmert staffer seeks 1st Congressional District seat
Former staff member for Gohmert seeking 1st Congressional District seat
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A former staff member for U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert is seeking to represent the 1st Congressional District, which includes Tyler and Longview

Republican Aditya Atholi said that rather than being a lawyer or politician running for Congress, his time in the oilfield makes him a “roughneck for Congress.”

Gohmert, R-Tyler, recently announced he is considering challenging Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in March’s Republican primary.

Regardless of if Gohmert runs for reelection in Congress or not, Atholi said, “We’re 100% in the race either way.”

“This isn’t about winning another office, but the direction the country is going in right now is unsustainable,” he said.

Having worked under Gohmert as a staff assistant after college, Atholi said he has a good relationship with Gohmert and respects him.

He added that there are, “some things I disagree with in how he does things, but in general I like the way he votes — very conservative just like me.”

Some of Atholi’s other political experiences include working in the Texas Economic Development office under former Gov. Rick Perry.

Atholi grew up and graduated from high school in Center. He continued his education at Rice University, where he studied government and managerial studies, earning his degree in 2009.

Toward the end of his college career, he said he knew he wanted to go into the Marines. Before becoming a Marine, Atholi worked not only for Gohmert but also briefly in several blue collar jobs and in the oilfield as a roughneck for seven years.

Having worked in numerous different fields, Atholi said he “understands people.” These experiences, especially in the oilfield, showed him there is a disconnect in the country, especially around those who attended big universities versus those who did not go to college.

“You ask any historian, the demise of any empire of any kind, in any culture, in history is inequality,” Atholi said. “When the rich have way too much and everyone else doesn’t, that tears society apart.”

While he was able to attend college, his work experience allowed him to recognize this disconnect, and if he were elected for Congress, he would work to change this, Atholi said. The government is made up of too many lawyers and politicians, he added.

“Our Congress was meant to reflect the citizenry of America,” he said. “It was not meant to be all lawyers.”

He added that he does not feel that a systemic tear down of the country is necessary, but the United States is on a decline.

Atholi said the direction of the country can be fixed with a plan, which is local self-government.

Trust needs to be put back into the people in order to bring the country back to local self government as the Founders intended, he said. At this point, there is too much power in Washington D.C., Atholi added.

“I think the only way you solve it is you have to get D.C. to do less because all the arguments we’re having right now all come down to crony capitalism,” Atholi said.

The Democratic and Republican parties are in what he described as a “toxic” relationship. Neither can agree and solve middle-class problems such as the rise in health care prices, lack of good public schools, lack of career jobs and more, he said.

Atholi said the simple, but not easy, solution is that, “We need to rebrand the Republican party from the party of small government … to the party of local government.”

“It’s the exact same thing, but the difference is that it simplifies what the Republican Party stands for,” he said. “We stand for local governing in almost any issue you can think of, and now, how to conservatively explain what we want to do is simple.”

The Republican Party is on the defensive as the party of small government, slowing down what Democrats want to do but not making big changes once it has the opportunity, he said. Republicans need to become offensive with local self government and make changes happen.

Atholi gave the example of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. He said Republicans didn’t like it, but they didn’t know what to replace it with. However, simply put, Republicans wanted to return to a free market on a national level, give block grants to the states and the states could design programs to help people as they see fit, he said.

Making what conservatives want super simple will allow ideas to spread, and pressure will be put on Congress to make it happen, he said.

“If a single person can tell me why the plan will not work to help bring conservative values back to America, we’re going to stop the campaign, that’s all it’s about,” Atholi said.

Issues that he wants to focus on include economy and job creation, border security, gun rights, taxes, spending, term limits in Congress and regulations.

To learn more about Atholi and platform, go to atholiforcongress.com .

PHOTOS: Longview community tree lighting kicks off holiday season
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Longview’s 22-foot community Christmas tree was lit Sunday evening during an event at Heritage Plaza in downtown.

Despite showers that slightly delayed the ceremony, a large crowd gathered to celebrate the return of the holiday season.

Santa Flavious performed a few songs before inviting children on stage to flip the switch and light the tree. Harvest Moon Countrygrass then took to the stage after Santa left to pose for photos.

The event also featured carriage rides as well as a petting zoo and vendors.

The tree will remain lit throughout the holidays.

See more photos on 3A.

Cap on drug price hikes for privately insured sparks battle
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WASHINGTON — Workers and families with private health insurance would reap savings on prescription drugs from a little-noticed provision in President Joe Biden’s sweeping social agenda bill. It’s meant to break the cycle of annual price increases for widely used medicines.

That provision would require drug companies to pay rebates to Medicare if they increase prices above the rate of inflation. Drugs sold to private plans would count in calculating the penalty, like a tax on price increases. The issue is dividing business groups in a fierce lobbying battle.

Corporate groups focused on affordable employee benefits want to keep the language as is so it would provide price-increase protection for companies and their workers and not just Medicare enrollees. Other groups such as the influential U.S. Chamber of Commerce are backing the pharmaceutical industry’s drive to block restraints on pricing, including inflation caps, saying they would stifle innovation.

House Democrats passed the roughly $2 trillion social agenda legislation on Friday and sent it to the Senate. The bill resets national priorities on issues from climate to family life and faces more scrutiny in that evenly divided chamber. Prescription drugs are but one component, and most of the attention has focused on Medicare provisions to slash out-of-pocket costs for seniors and allow the program to negotiate prices for a limited number of medicines.

But the inflation caps would have far-reaching impact for as many as 180 million Americans with private insurance.

“A lot of people don’t realize that the bill applies to, and will help, privately insured people,” said Shawn Gremminger, health policy director at the Purchaser Business Group on Health. “But that isn’t a sure thing. As currently structured, that would be the case. But we have been worried and continue to be worried that will change.” His coalition represents nearly 40 large employers that cover more than 15 million workers, retirees and their families.

Inflation caps would be a “game changer,” said James Gelfand, a vice president of ERIC, a group that represents major national companies as providers of employee benefits.

Earlier legislation would have based the “inflation rebates” on sales to Medicare plans, but the House-passed bill broadens the formula to include private plans.

“If they raise prices in private markets faster than the economy grows, they will be required to pay that money back to the government,” Gelfand said. The goal is to deter drug companies from extravagant price increases.

Polls show that Americans across the political spectrum overwhelmingly favor government action to reduce drug prices. The chief cost complaints are: high out-of-pocket costs for patients, high and rising list prices, and high launch prices for new medicines. The Biden package would tackle the first two issues, but Democrats were unable to agree on authorizing Medicare to negotiate prices of new drugs.

Annual price increases for established prescription drugs usually outpace inflation, although there have been periods of moderation in recent years.

Gremminger said his group estimates that the privately insured market could save $250 billion over 10 years under the inflation caps currently in the bill. Without them, Gelfand estimates that employers could face an additional 3.7% annual increase in health care costs over the usual medical inflation because drug companies could in effect raise prices on privately insured patients to make up for rebates paid on behalf of Medicare enrollees.

“It’s true that not all the business groups are in the same place,” Gelfand said of divisions in the business community. “If you look at groups on either side of the issue, there are groups that protect the business interests of pharma, and then there’s everybody else.”

The main drug industry lobbying group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, says inflation rebates would undermine innovation that continues after medicines are approved.

The generic drug industry wants their products exempted. Dan Leonard, president of the generic lobbying group Association for Accessible Medicines, said he fears his members will be penalized for price increases that amount to pennies on the dollar. “When generics are not exempted ... they’ll get caught up in the jet wash,” he said.

In the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has taken a lead role on prescription drugs, supports keeping the inflation caps for privately insured people.

Opponents could pursue a parliamentary challenge under Senate rules, arguing that penalizing price increases by one private company on another has no bearing on federal budgetary issues. If the challenge succeeds, costs to private insurance plans would be stripped from the inflation rebates. Supporters of the caps say they do have a budgetary purpose because they would raise revenue and generate savings for Medicare.

Katie Mahoney, the top health policy expert for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said her organization has “very real concerns” that the drug pricing provisions would undermine incentives for industry to develop new medicines, and is pressing that point in the Senate.

“We continue to hammer on the damage that such policies would do,” she said. “We feel that message is making headway with senators and with some members of Congress.”

Asked about other business groups that are supporting inflation caps, Mahoney said they don’t reflect private enterprise generally.

“When you look at those other organizations, first of all they’re significantly smaller and their policy focus is very narrow,” she said. “They don’t represent business across the board, they represent a very discreet and narrow slice of issues.”

GOP embraces natural immunity as substitute for vaccines
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Republicans fighting President Joe Biden’s coronavirus vaccine mandates are wielding a new weapon against the White House rules: natural immunity.

They contend that people who have recovered from the virus have enough immunity and antibodies to not need COVID-19 vaccines, and the concept has been invoked by Republicans as a sort of stand-in for vaccines.

Florida wrote natural immunity into state law this week as GOP lawmakers elsewhere are pushing similar measures to sidestep vaccine mandates. Lawsuits over the mandates have also begun leaning on the idea. Conservative federal lawmakers have implored regulators to consider it when formulating mandates.

Scientists acknowledge that people previously infected with COVID-19 have some level of immunity but that vaccines offer a more consistent level of protection. Natural immunity is also far from a one-size-fits-all scenario, making it complicated to enact sweeping exemptions to vaccines.

That’s because how much immunity COVID-19 survivors have depends on how long ago they were infected, how sick they were, and if the virus variant they had is different from mutants circulating now. For example, a person who had a minor case one year ago is much different than a person who had a severe case over the summer when the delta variant was raging through the country. It’s also difficult to reliably test whether someone is protected from future infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in August that COVID-19 survivors who ignored advice to get vaccinated were more than twice as likely to get infected again. A more recent study from the CDC, looking at data from nearly 190 hospitals in nine states, determined that unvaccinated people who had been infected months earlier were five times more likely to get COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people who didn’t have a prior infection.

“Infection with this virus, if you survive, you do have some level of protection against getting infected in the future and particularly against getting serious infection in the future,” said Dr. David Dowdy of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s important to note though that even those who have been infected in the past get additional protection from being vaccinated.”

Studies also show that COVID-19 survivors who get vaccinated develop extra-strong protection, what’s called “hybrid immunity.” When previously infected person gets a coronavirus vaccine, the shot acts like a booster and revs virus-fighting antibodies to high levels. The combination also strengthens another defensive layer of the immune system, helping create new antibodies that are more likely to withstand future variants.

The immunity debate comes as the country is experiencing another surge in infections and hospitalizations and 60 million people remain unvaccinated in a pandemic that has killed more than 770,000 Americans. Biden is hoping more people will get vaccinated because of workplace mandates set to take effect early next year but which face many challenges in the courts.

And many Republicans eager to buck Biden have embraced the argument that immunity from earlier infections should be enough to earn an exemption from the mandates.

“We recognize, unlike what you see going on with the federal proposed mandates and other states, we’re actually doing a science-based approach. For example, we recognize people that have natural immunity,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has been a chief critic of virus rules, said at a signing ceremony for sweeping legislation to hobble vaccine mandates this week.

The new Florida law forces private businesses to let workers opt out of COVID-19 mandates if they can prove immunity through a prior infection, as well as exemptions based on medical reasons, religious beliefs, regular testing or an agreement to wear protective gear. The state health department, which is led by Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo, who opposes mandates and has drawn national attention over a refusal to wear a face mask during a meeting, will have authority to define exemption standards.

The Republican-led New Hampshire Legislature plans to take up a similar measure when it meets in January. Lawmakers in Idaho and Wyoming, both statehouses under GOP-control, recently debated similar measures but did not pass them. In Utah, a newly signed law creating exemptions from Biden’s vaccine mandates for private employers allows people to duck the requirement if they have already had COVID.

And the debate is not unique to the U.S. Russia has seen huge numbers of people seeking out antibody tests to prove they had an earlier infection and therefore don’t need vaccines.

Some politicians use the science behind natural immunity to advance narratives suggesting vaccines aren’t the best way to end the pandemic.

“The shot is not by any means the only or proven way out of the pandemic. I’m not willing to give blind faith to the pharmaceutical narrative,” said Idaho Republican Rep. Greg Ferch.

U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican and physician, along with 14 other GOP doctors, dentists and pharmacists in Congress, sent a letter in late September to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urging the agency, when setting vaccination policies, to consider natural immunity.

The White House has recently unveiled a host of vaccine mandates, sparking a flurry of lawsuits from GOP states, setting the stage for pitched legal battles. Among the rules are vaccine requirements for federal contractors, businesses with more than 100 employees and health care workers.

In separate lawsuits, others are challenging local vaccine rules using an immunity defense.

A 19-year-old student who refuses to be tested but claims he contracted and quickly recovered from COVID-19 is suing the University of Nevada, Reno, the governor and others over the state’s requirement that everyone, with few exceptions, show proof of vaccination in order to register for classes in the upcoming spring semester. The case alleges that “COVID-19 vaccination mandates are an unconstitutional intrusion on normal immunity and bodily integrity.”

Another case, filed by workers of Los Alamos National Laboratory, challenges their workplace vaccine mandate for civil rights and constitutional violations, arguing the lab has refused requests for medical accommodations for those workers who have fully recovered from COVID-19.

A similar lawsuit from Chicago firefighters and other city employees hit a bump last month when a judge said their case lacked scientific evidence to support the contention that the natural immunity for people who have had the virus is superior to the protection from the vaccine.