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June 24, 2021

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Daughter’s death drives Nevada candidate Amy Vilela for Congress

'Keeping Up with the Candidates'

Miranda Alam/Special to The Sun

Congressional District 4 Democratic candidate Amy Vilela speaks during the Keeping Up with the Candidates panel hosted by NextGen America at Three Square in Las Vegas on Tuesday, May 22, 2018.

'Keeping Up with the Candidates'

Congressional District 4 Democratic candidate Pat Spearman speaks during the Keeping Up with the Candidates panel hosted by NextGen America at Three Square in Las Vegas on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. Launch slideshow »

A mother says a delay in medical care that she blames for her daughter’s death is behind her push to run for political office in Nevada.

Amy Vilela, one of many Democrats in the Congressional District 4 race to replace Rep. Ruben Kihuen, said her 22-year-old daughter, Shalynne McKinney-Ramos, died three years ago after delays in care because of conflict over her insurance coverage. She died while doctors were trying to break up a blood clot that went from knee to groin, a clot that Vilela said doctors missed at first amid confusion about her medical coverage.

When McKinney-Ramos went to the hospital with pain in her leg, she was waiting for her new insurance to kick in and didn’t receive the life-saving treatment she needed, Vilela said. Vilela was out of town when she got a call from her daughter and husband from the hospital.

“They’re telling her it’s going to be very expensive, she can leave now, there’s the door, it won’t cost her anything,” Vilela said. “They want us to see if we can get her on our insurance.”

Vilela’s husband is an officer in the Air Force, and she said they didn’t know that as a result, their children would not be covered under the Affordable Care Act between the ages of 21 and 23. McKinney-Ramos did not qualify for TRICARE, part of the Military Health System, because she had enrolled in nursing school but had not started classes. Vilela told her to get treatment anyway.

McKinney-Ramos fell into a narrow crack in the ACA, a law that filled some other gaps in health care, such as for those with pre-existing conditions who often could not afford the higher premiums that insurance companies could charge.

Vilela said her daughter had seen a radiologist about her leg before switching schools and her health insurance lapsed. In the hospital, she told her new doctors that she knew her leg wasn’t broken, telling her mom, “ ‘They told me to go get insurance and see a specialist,’ ” Vilela said.

Not long after that, at a different hospital in another state, Vilela said, McKinney-Ramos’ dad called her to say their daughter had gone into cardiac arrest. Vilela took a flight to her daughter’s hospital, where she was comatose.

“They were trying to bust the clot up, and she never regained consciousness,” Vilela said. “I had to do what no parent should have to do, and that’s hold your child as they die a needless death.”

Vilela said she grieved for more than a year before she started taking action, both politically and through a lawsuit against the hospital that failed to diagnose her daughter’s blood clot.

“You hear if you just work your butts off, pull yourself up by your bootstraps … you do all the things you’re supposed to do, you’re safe,” Vilela said. “That’s a fallacy, because we’re only as safe as the most vulnerable in our community.”

Vilela organized a rally in support of the ACA while Republicans in Congress were trying to repeal the law. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., attended one rally and heard McKinney-Ramos’ story and signed onto the Medicaid for Public Option Act in Congress.

“So we really were making some headway,” Vilela said. “Being a chief financial officer, I knew that we had to do more and I understand what part money plays and profit motive plays in our health care industry.”

Vilela, who was a CFO in the nonprofit sector, said she originally entered the congressional race to push Rep. Ruben Kihuen, who is retiring amid a House ethics investigation, further to the left. She told Kihuen about her daughter’s death and the need for universal health care, and felt powerless when all he said was that he cared enough to be there with her rather than enjoying his weekend.

She said Kihuen ran on a platform that said health care was a human right, and then he changed it to health insurance is a human right.

“You can’t go in and ask for your want here,” she said. “We need to start way up at the top … they keep on going in at, ‘this is what I think they’re going to agree to.’ That’s not how you negotiate.”

Having been a single mom who sought public assistance and struggled financially, Vilela also says she understands poverty. She said she relied on WIC, Medicaid and food stamps, stayed with family and friends at times, and often watched her children do without.

She said using those programs to provide her children with nutritious meals, she felt embarrassed and ashamed, just like her mother had when she was working as a secretary and needed food stamps to support four daughters on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.

Vilela started a business at age 20, but the business failed. She got divorced and enrolled in community college. Now 43, Vilela said it wasn’t until she was in her late 20s that she knew she’d made it financially.

“I remember that clearly,” she said. “I had never had health insurance. I remember driving around without car insurance. When I was able to actually afford all the things that as a responsible parent and adult that you should be having, that felt so good.”

Vilela has four other children, ranging in age from 5 to 22. She said that shortly before her daughter died, Vilela was excited to be able to support her in school as she prepared for her future.

“It almost was like I could make reparations for the absolute tough childhood that my children had, my older children,” she said. “I remember I was telling her, ‘I can’t wait to throw a big party for you when you graduate from college, and be there for you for your first baby,’ and these were things we actually talked about. That was tough, because I’ll never be able to do that with her. When she finally had reached a time in her life when she felt good and she was doing well in college and she was single and getting ready just to start life, it was taken.”

Vilela is in a crowded primary on June 12, facing Steven Horsford, who previously held the seat, and state Sen. Pat Spearman, whose work in the Legislature includes pushing to get Nevada lawmakers to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Other candidates include Allison Stephens, a regent for the Nevada System of Higher Education; John Anzalone, a Clark County School District principal; and retired Marine Lt. Col. Sid Zeller.