U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, who represents the sixth congressional district, serves as the Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Congressman Pallone met in Piscataway with Protect Our Care New Jersey; Piscataway Mayor Brian C. Wahler; Maura Collinsgru, Health Care Program Director with New Jersey Citizen Action; Stephanie Hunsinger, State Director of AARP New Jersey; and Lisa Ann Trainor, a patient advocate, to send a message to the US Senate that they must include health care investments and reforms as part of the Build Back Better Act. Pallone was also joined by State Senator Bob Smith, who represents LD-17. Smith, most notably for Piscataway, also served as the township’s mayor in the first half of the 1980s.
Mayor Wahler spoke, saying that while local officials try what they can to make life affordable for seniors, there is only so much they can do. Wahler said it was the “responsibility of the federal government and, to a certain extent the state government, trying to put programming at the national level and have a direction on how programs are going to affect seniors in their golden years.” The mayor hailed Pallone’s efforts in the Congress for working on behalf of seniors, citing the importance of such, given the fact that everyone inevitably ages. “That’s the fact, we’re all going to get older, and the programs that Congressman Pallone and several of his colleagues are fighting for on your behalf are going to benefit not only the current generation of seniors, but more importantly, future generations. I have to now look at my children. What’s going to happen with health care when they are grown, when they get older, or our potential grandkids? What happens?”
Chairman Pallone’s appearance with Protect Our Care New Jersey represents one of the highest-level advocates the organization has had from the New Jersey congressional delegation. Pallone spoke at length regarding aspects of the health provisions they want to be made into law through the Build Back Better Act, among them, the ability for Medicare to negotiate drug price costs. This was an issue which State Senator Loretta Weinberg also specifically spoke about on October 22 with Protect Our Care New Jersey. “Some of you know that I’ve been advocating this for years,” Pallone said to the audience gathered in the Piscataway Senior Center. “The idea that every other government in developed countries whether it’s Western Europe, Japan or Australia, they all negotiate prices with the drug companies in an effort to try to bring costs down for their seniors in particular, in our case in the Medicare program. We’ve never been able to do that when Medicare Part D was established years ago. That was slipped into it, a provision that said that the government couldn’t do that, which I think was wrong. And so, for the first time, this bill—which passed the House as was mentioned, and we are trying to get it passed in the Senate the next couple of weeks—actually allows for the federal government to negotiate prices now. It doesn’t allow everything to be negotiated, and certainly not everything right away. There was a major issue because of what we call the ‘exclusivity period’ when a drug is on the market and has a patent. The drug companies were opposed to being negotiated during that patent period. I would have done that, but that’s not what’s in this. But it certainly allows for negotiations of drugs beyond the patent period beyond the exclusive period.”
Pallone used the example of Revlimid used by his father who had suffered from multiple myeloma. Pallone credit Revlimid for extending his father’s life by another four years, but he said that the annual cost was $85,000. “Under Medicare, it’s covered, but it’s $85,000 and then there was a copay, which was significant. So that is an example of one that would be negotiated.” Pallone also cited Humira and insulin as examples of drugs which could be negotiated down. “Insulin is actually a generic drug, but that will be negotiated and the bill specifically says you can’t be charged more than $35 a month for insulin, which is capped. So it’s significant but beyond that, what the bill does is also say a senior can’t spend out of pocket more than $2,000 a year, and that’s divided per month.” The end result of that would be $166.67 a month. Pallone said that while some people have asked why they should pay anything at all for insulin, he asserted that, at present, many seniors are already paying well in excess of $2,000 a year.
Lisa Ann Trainor described her own health ordeals with chronic illness, where expensive medications could no longer be paid for when her husband’s job situation changed during the pandemic. The medication was costing her $1,000 a month and after losing her insurance, she had to find a less effective, cheaper drug. “I know my story is not unique and I want to speak up for other patients like myself. We need change. Luckily right now Congress has the chance to deliver change patients like me desperately need… I urge our New Jersey senators to stand with Chairman Pallone to support the current drug price reforms and the Build Back Better Act. New Jerseyans like me need you to fight for the thousands of us affected by the unaffordable price of our prescription drugs. So many New Jerseyans are suffering right now. We don’t have time to wait.”
Stephanie Hunsinger from AARP echoed the congressman. “I would like to especially thank Chairman Pallone for his leadership and his persistence and helping to lower prescription drug costs for seniors. For years Americans have been sick and tired of paying the highest prices in the world for medications that they need. Here in the Garden State more than two out of three New Jersey voters 50 Plus are concerned that they will not be able to afford the medicines they need as they age. It’s no wonder that older Americans are worried about the cost of their medications.” Hunsinger quoted an AARP RX Pricewatch report which said prescription drug prices rose more than twice as fast as inflation in 2020 and had been rising faster than inflation for almost a decade.
“Every year,” Hunsinger said, “Medicare spends more than $129 billion on prescription drugs. Yet it is still prohibited from negotiating with drug companies for lower costs. Allowing Medicare to negotiate will save seniors billions and lower prescription drug costs for all Americans. No one should have to choose between affording their medications or paying for food or rent. The Build Back Better bill that the House passed earlier this month is a historic step in helping seniors afford the medications that they need.”
Maura Collingru spoke about the bill making CHIP permanent, one which would cover 9.6 million American kids and the benefits the bill would bring for struggling workers. She also took aim at states which opted out of taking additional federal funds. “Build Back Better expands access to health coverage for 4 million low wage workers in states that put politics above people by refusing to accept federal dollars to expand their Medicaid program. This bill will end that injustice. It extends the tax credits as Congressman Pallone referenced to millions of individuals. We talk about people who don’t have job-based coverage. Who are they? They are the retail workers, the people we see in the stores we visit, independent contractors, self-employed people, small business owners, all of them will have access to increased subsidies in order to buy more affordable coverage.”
Collingru closed, saying, “We urge our senators to stand strong to make sure that this bill in its entirety passes as it did the House, because we will all be better off if that happens.”
Protect Our Care New Jersey described the Build Back Better Act as an opportunity to make health reforms and lower costs, the largest measure since the Affordable Care Act passed under President Obama. Politically, the legislation marks a revisitation of health reform for President Biden, who was serving as Vice President when “Obamacare” came into effect. The passage of Build Back Better is also the hinge upon which the president’s agenda, as his first year in office reaches its close, rests. A largely intractable Republican Party along with intra-party squabbling between the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party and more conservative types, such as New Jersey’s Congressman Josh Gottheimer, stalled the advancement of Biden’s non-COVID-related objectives. The bipartisan infrastructure bill and the reconciliation being delayed may have likely contributed to the 2021 Red Wave by denying the president a bulked-up resume ahead of Election Day.
With the Democrats holding a very thin margin in the House and with a split Senate, party cooperation is crucial in a time when practical bipartisanship is a rare exception. While Pallone and his allies would like to deliver more for seniors through this aspect of Build Back Better, the practical reality is that the legislature is a tightrope walk and President Biden stands to cross to the other side or tumble early on in his administration. Would-be presidential candidates looking to 2024, whether Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, or Donald Trump, will be watching closely. The fact remains that Biden has no better opportunity to advance his agenda than now—assuming that his fellow Democrats will work together. While it is still too early to make predictions with any great certainty, the president’s first year is his most crucial as it will set the tone for the mid-terms, where Republicans—energized from the 2021 Red Wave—will ramp up their efforts to unseat shaky Democrats and effectively nail the coffin shut on Biden’s agenda for his remaining years in office.
Pallone did, however, praise New Jersey for being ahead of the curve on state-supported health care. Before introducing Senator Smith, Pallone spoke again to give credit to the Garden State’s efforts. “There are a lot of things that I didn’t mention, because our state already does them right but others don’t. For example, one of the biggest, most important aspects of this bill, is that for states that refused to expand Medicaid coverage to higher levels, we provide subsidies so those people can go to the Obama marketplace and get insurance through the ACA. That’s not necessary in New Jersey because Senator Smith in the state legislature expanded the Medicaid coverage in New Jersey.”
The congressman also cited the importance of effective re-insurance and praised the former mayor of Piscataway for his role in establishing New Jersey’s current framework. He likewise pointed out one of the major short-comings found in Republican-dominated states, where their residents are not being advertised the means by which to take advantage of Obamacare. He did not overtly say that this was deliberate in the capitals of red states, but rather he pointed out that New Jersey was faring better than most others in this regard. “More carriers came into the state and offered insurance coverage, which is great because it creates more competition and lower prices. In this bill, there’s a major reinsurance program that gives money to the state so that the efficient insurance company or a carrier that comes in won’t have to worry that if they don’t do well or have too much exposure, that they’re going to go under or become bankrupt. That encourages them to enter the market. They already did that with the state legislature in New Jersey. The other thing is that many of the Red States don’t provide much help to advertise the ACA or what’s available to people; they don’t have the navigators. They don’t have the ads that tell people how to sign up. In this bill, we do that. We provide money to states, but, again, our state legislature already did this. So, I didn’t mention these things because we’re in a state where we have people like Senator Smith and others who are already doing this stuff and therefore the federal government doesn’t have to step in. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t herald the fact that they have done it and made it possible to make a difference.”
When Senator Bob Smith rose to speak, he noted that thirty years prior, he had run against Pallone in a primary and lost—and now he was happy he did, since Pallone had done so well since then. He then urged the seniors to take action themselves. “The impacts on prescription costs are so enormous that every senior citizen in the state needs to know how important it is. You need to get on your phone lines and to the mailbox.” As for Senators Menendez and Booker, Smith said, “I don’t have a doubt” that they would support it. However, “the rest of the country I’m unsure about, if at least one or two senators have some doubts.”
Smith stressed that the seniors need to talk to their friends and family, especially those out of state, to contact their senators. “Whatever family you may have around the country, give them a call and ask them to make sure that their US Senators know how important Build Back Better is to your future health care. You’ve got to do it, you absolutely, positively have to do it for your family and friends.”
Pallone further appealed to the seniors, laying out a laundry list of ways that the Build Back Better health provisions would benefit them, as well as providing for things such as maternity care, expanding CHIP, hearing treatment for seniors, and home health aid assistance. “There’s $150 billion price tag in this bill to essentially give money to hire more home health care workers, to pay them higher salaries, and provide better benefits. The idea would be to expand home health care. Most people don’t know unless they face it, that if they go to a hospital, Medicare only covers home health care for a month. When you come home, and unless you’re on Medicaid—which you have to be very low income—you don’t get any additional coverage. So, this is going to try to expand home health care so people don’t have to go to nursing homes and then spend down under Medicaid to be able to stay in nursing. Anybody who’s had to deal with this knows exactly what I’m talking about. Many people who are younger don’t, so they have no idea, but it’s extremely important.”
As for the bill itself, Pallone was optimistic that the Senate would be cooperative. Regarding any sticking points of policy, Pallone said, “For the most part, we worked them out with the Senate. This wasn’t something where the House passed a bill and the Senate is going to change significantly on almost everything that I mentioned to you. I believe that because we worked on this with the Senate collectively, that those things will be included in the Senate version that will come back to the House.”
Pallone and those advocating for the health provisions as part of Biden’s keystone piece of legislation hope to improve the lives of millions. “The House passage of the Build Back Better act is really the most significant expansion since the Affordable Care Act,” Maggie Leuzarder said. “This Act includes historic measures that will strengthen American health care and lower insurance premiums.” In the halls of power, passing—and the delivering of—crucial medical policies that noticeably benefit all Americans may also provide the best lifeline for the president’s own political health in the face of slumping polls, a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the tremors felt in the 2021 elections. As far as New Jersey’s Democratic leadership is concerned, the state has been doing its homework—plus extra-credit, but the rest of the nation needs to look to the Garden State’s example, carry the bill through the Senate, and bring it to the Oval Office.