Cicilline Hopes Dems Take Senate

Published in Pawtucket Times on November 9, 2020

On Saturday, November 7, at 11:45 a.m. (eastern Standard Time), as the Trump campaign called for legal challenges looming over ballot counting, CNBC projected Joe Biden to win the U.S. Election, making him president-elect.  As the dust settles over this very divisive election, Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes propelled Biden over the 273 electoral votes needed to win.

With the Democrats now taking control of the White House and maintaining control of the House, even with a loss of seats, the battle for control of the Senate now turns to Georgia with one regular and one special election scheduled to fill a vacancy take place on January 5.  

With garnering less than 50 percent of the vote, in accordance with Georgia law, GOP Sen. David Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff meet again at a January 5 runoff election.  Rev. Raphael Warnock, the democratic challenger, and governor-appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who replaced Sen. Johnny Isakson when he retired last year, battle in the Peach State for a Senate seat in special-election runoff.

Democrats now have a long-shot of taking control of the Senate with Kamala Harris being elected vice president and if they win the two Senate races in Georgia’s upcoming election. By winning the Senate, both parties will each have 50 seats, Harris tipping the balance of power to the Democrats. 

McConnell, Oversees “Least Productive” Congress in its History

Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) says that the Democratic-controlled House has had one of the most productive Congresses in the institution’s history. “We’ve passed more than 600 bills in the House, but there are more than 375 of them stuck on Mitch McConnell’s desk, many of them bipartisan,” notes Cicilline, who serves as Co-Chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

“Obviously, both Georgia senate races are hanging in balance and it’s important we win them.  A Democratic majority in the Senate will allow for the passage of the “For the People” agenda which creates jobs, raises wages, lowers health care costs and increases access to affordable prescription drugs.  These bills are good for Rhode Islanders and all Americans,” states Cicilline.

“I look foward to working with the Biden Administration to put together a robust agenda for the first 100 days and get to work passing bills that will help Rhode Island’s economy, workers and seniors,” adds Cicilline.

With the release of its 2020 Democracy Scorecard in September, Aaron Sherb, director of legislative affairs for the Washington, DC based Common Cause, documents how a Republican-controlled Senate has resulted in legislative gridlock.  “What the 2020 Democracy Scorecard makes plain is the blatant disregard for democracy reforms in the Senate. “The House of Representatives passed nearly 10 democracy reform bills, often with bipartisan support, this session, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) blocked debate and mark-ups on all of these bills and refused to allow a vote,” he said.

In fact, the Senate’s inaction has the 116th Congress on tract to be the least productive in history, with just one percent of the bills becoming law,” charges Sherb. author of the 2020 Democracy Scorecard,

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) strongly agrees with Sherb’s assessment of McConnell’s successful efforts to block Democratic and bipartisan-sponsored common-sense legislation critical to protecting the health and well-being of Americans.  Seniors will not be better off with a GOP-controlled Senate, warns NCPSSM, calling for the Democrats to win the Georgia Senate special elections to take over the control of the Senate.

According to NCPSSM, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group with a mission to protect Social Security and Medicare, “Since 2019, the Democratic-controlled House has served as a firewall against Trump’s efforts to defund, cut and privatize Security and Medicare.  But as long as Republicans control the Senate, legislation to protect and expand seniors’ earned benefits will remain in limbo. Under a Democratic majority, though, seniors would likely see real progress where their financial and health security are concerned.”

NCPSSM charges Senate majority leader McConnell, who gave himself the nickname, the “Grim Reaper,” has buried hundreds of House-passed bills during the 116th Congress that would have benefitted America’s seniors.  He even refused to take up last May’s House-passed COVID-passed relief bill, and the lower chambers recently passed COVID-19 legislation, as the nation’s public health officials battled the spread and spiking of the deadly virus. 

McConnell also blocked consideration of H.R. 3, the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, which the House passed almost a year ago, says NCPSSM. 

H.R. 3 would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription prices with Big Pharma, which would save the government and seniors nearly $350 billion in drug costs. The bill would also expand traditional Medicare by adding dental, vision, and hearing benefits.

NCPSSM says that the GOP Senate Leader will not even allow a bipartisan crafted bill, the S 2543, the “Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act, introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Ron Wyden (D-OR), to be considered on the Senate floor.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, this legislation would save taxpayers $95 billion, reduce out-of-pocket spending by $72 billion and finally reduce premiums by $1 billion.

The eyes are now on the Supreme Court, where three Trump-appointed Justices will rule on legal issues coming before the nation’s highest court. “If the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act, which strengthens Medicare’s finances and included enhanced benefits for seniors (not to mention protecting older patients with pre-existing conditions), a Democratic House and Senate could replace or revise it,” notes NCPSSM. 

House Democrats are considering HR 860, The Social Security 2100 Act, to strengthen and expand Social Security.  The landmark legislation, introduced by Rep. John Larson (D-CT), referred to the Subcommittee on Social Security would keep the program financially healthy through the end of the century, while boosting benefits for all retirees. NCPSSM notes that president-elect Joe Biden has incorporated many of the proposals in this bill into his own plan. 

NCPSSM adds that a Democratic-controlled House and Senate could reduce the financial impact on COVID-19 on current and future retirees’ Social Security benefits.  Under Democratic Senate leadership, notes the Washington, DC-based advocacy group, the upper chamber could work with the House to increase the tiny 1.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to 3 percent for 2021.  which would be welcome news for older Americans who were laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic that sweep the nation, forcing many into early retirement

Finally, NCPSSM says that a Democratic-controlled House and Senate could prevent aging Baby Boomers born in 1960 (and possibly 1961, as well) from suffering a lifetime reduction in their future benefits caused by a COVID-related drop in average wages.

A Final Note:  Let’s Bring Back House Aging Committee

During the last two Congresses, Cicilline introduced a resolution three times to re-establish a House Permanent Select Committee on Aging. Two of the times a GOP-controlled Congress blocked consideration.  Democrat House efforts to impeach President Donald Trump and a continual battle over policy issues with the Trump Administration and the Republican-controlled Senate put Cicilline’s resolution on hold the third time.  

The previous House Aging Committee was active from 1974 to 1993 (until it was disbanded because of budgetary issues) put the spot light on an array of senior issues including elder abuse, helped increase home care benefits for older adults and helped establish research and care centers for Alzheimer’s disease.  

After introducing his resolution this Congress, Cicilline says that a reestablished House Aging Committee could initiate comprehensive studies on aging policy issues, funding priorities, and trends.  Like its predecessor, its efforts would not be limited by narrow jurisdictional boundaries of the standing committee but broadly at targeted aging policy issues, he notes.

According to Cicilline, the House can easily create an ad hoc (temporary) select committee by approving a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee—giving a purpose, defining membership, and detailing other aspects.  Funding would be up to the Appropriations Committee. Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

During the 117th Congress, as the House begins its debates on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the Older Americans Act, and other issues of importance to older adults, it will be important to have a House Aging Committee that once again puts the spotlight and attention on America’s aging issues. 

Democratic House Passes Landmark Legislation to Drive Down Spiraling Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 16, 2019

Just days ago, the Democratic House leadership successfully pushed for passage of landmark legislation, the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act (H.R. 3), that would give Medicare the power to negotiate directly with drug companies to bring down pharmaceutical prices and make those savings available to seniors.

House Democrats passed Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s sweeping legislation on Dec. 12 to lower the cost of prescription drugs on a largely party-line vote. The bill, which passed 230 to 192 with unanimous Democratic support and the backing of two Republicans, Reps Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn) and Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Wash), is considered “dead on arrival” in the Senate. The White House has indicated President Trump would veto H.R. 3 it if it came to his desk.

The House Republicans fought to block passage of H.R. 3 by releasing their own legislative proposal, H.R. 19, to lower drug costs. The bill, consisting of bipartisan legislative provisions to lower drug costs that had already been adopted, would have achieved lower drug prices without imposing government price controls that House Republicans believed would decrease research and development spending for new drug cures.

Although House Republican Whip Steve Scalise called on the Democratic leadership to bring H.R. 19, with 135 sponsors and no Democrats, to the House Floor, the GOP proposal did not receive a vote on its own. It was offered by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) as an amendment to H.R. 3 and failed by a vote of 201 to 223, getting eight Democrat votes.

The Nuts and Bolts

H.R. 3 would put the brakes of spiraling drug cost by giving power to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate directly with drug companies to force real price reductions while also ensuring that seniors never lose access to the medicines they need. The legislation also expands access to the lower, negotiated drug prices to persons with private insurance, not just Medicare beneficiaries.

The 320-page House bill also prevents pharmaceutical companies from price gouging patients by capping the maximum price for a negotiated drug at the average price people in countries similar to the U.S. pay. It would create a brand new, $2,000 out-of-pocket limit on prescription drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries and even delivers vision, dental, and hearing benefits to Medicare beneficiaries for the first time.

H.R. 3 also increases the number of low-income seniors eligible for assistance with their drug costs and cost sharing for hospital and doctor visits. By extending guaranteed issue protections to disabled beneficiaries and to individuals who want to switch from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare, the legislation improves access to private supplemental coverage that helps fill in Medicare’s gaps for beneficiaries in traditional Medicare.

“The U.S. House of Representatives resoundingly defied Big Pharma today by-passing historic legislation to lower prescription drug prices for America’s seniors and their families. The Lower Drug Costs Now Act (H.R. 3) accomplishes what we and other advocates have long demanded — that Medicare be empowered to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies, which the CBO says will save more than $450 billion in drug costs. It also caps Medicare beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket prescription drug costs at $2,000 per year, says Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, in a statement.

The Pros and Cons of H.R. 3

Richtman says that it is time for the Senate Chamber to act. Drug pricing legislation that passed by the Senate Finance Committee has not been brought up for a vote on the Senate floor. “We insist that the Senate follow the House’s lead and act now to lift the burden of crushing prescription drug prices. Seniors who have been rationing pills or foregoing other necessities in order to afford crucial medications have waited long enough,” he says.

In a statement released following House passage of H.R. 3, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond, called the legislation” a bold step toward lowering prescription drug prices and high out-of-pocket costs for millions of older Americans.”
“High drug prices disproportionately hurt older Americans, particularly Medicare Part D enrollees, who take between four and five prescription medications each month and have an average annual income of just over $26,000 a year. The average annual price of a specialty drug used on a chronic basis is now $79,000. Medications cannot work if they are unaffordable, says LeaMond.

Adds AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell, “Drug companies are price-gouging older Americans and taxpayers– who pay the highest drug costs in the world,” noting that “AARP is proud to support H.R. 3, which would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and cap out-of-pocket costs for Part D enrollees. The bill also enhances Medicare by improving access and adding needed dental, hearing, and vision coverage.”

Opposing the passage of H.R. 3, the White House says in a statement, “Heavy-handed government intervention may reduce drug prices in the short term, but these savings are not worth the long-term cost of American patients losing access to new lifesaving treatments.” Noting that lowering the price of prescription drugs is major concern for seniors, the White Houses warned that H.R. 3 is the wrong approach to address this issue, “especially when bipartisan legislative alternatives that encourage innovation while lowering prescription drug

During a briefing with reporters over two months ago, President and CEO Stephen Ubl, of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), warned the passage of H.R.3 would trigger “nuclear winter” for biotech innovation. Fiercely opposing passage, PhRMA has called on the Senate to “stop H.R. 3 in its tracks.”

Putting the Brakes on Rising Drug Costs in Rhode Island

“We all know someone who has been forced to ration the medication they need to live so that they can afford to keep a roof over their family’s heads or put food on the table. In America, in 2019, this should never be the case,” said Congressman David N. Cicilline (D-RI), who voted to pass the measure. “Pharmaceutical companies have abused American patients and taxpayers to increase their profits hand over fist without recourse for too long. The Lower Drug Costs Now Act will put an end to the price gouging by big pharma that sees American patients and taxpayers paying more for their prescription drugs than people in other countries, says the Rhode Island Congressman representing the state’s first congressional district.

In his 2016 campaign, President Donald J. Trump supported the government to negotiate drug prices. Cicilline calls on the president to honor this promise and urges Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring a companion measure to the Senate floor for consideration. At press time more than 300 House passed bills are stuck in the Senate (about 275 are bipartisan).

According to Cicilline, the out-of-pocket savings to Rhode Islanders will be substantial. “This year alone, more than 1,000 women in the state will be diagnosed with breast cancer, 550 people will be told they have prostate cancer, and 190 folks will be diagnosed with leukemia. H.R. 3 will lower the average costs of many popular medications for these and other cancer treatments. The cost of Ibrance for treating breast cancer will be reduced by as much as 65 percent. Zytiga, a common prescription for people with prostate cancer, will be reduced by as much as 66 percent. And the cost of Tasigna, which is commonly prescribed to people with leukemia, will go down by as much as 71 percent,” says Cicilline, who serves as the Democratic Policy and Communication Committee Chair.

Earlier this year, the Rhode Island Congressman released information detailing how much more Rhode Islanders with diabetes pay for their insulin than people in other countries. Currently, 8.6 percent of Rhode Islanders, just over 83,000 people, have diabetes. They pay from $1,200 to $20,000 per year for the most commonly used insulin medications. Under the newly passed H.R. 3, the average total cost of NovoLOG Flexpen, a common insulin medicine, would decrease by as much as 76 percent. Under H.R. 3, Rhode Islanders could spend 3.5 times less on insulin, and some of the commonly used insulins could cost as little as $400 per year.

According to Cicilline, seniors in his Congressional District will see Medicare improvements if H.R. 3 becomes law. At this time, Medicare does not provide coverage for: oral exams for 71 percent of beneficiaries, eye exams for 66 percent of beneficiaries, hearing exams for 66 percent of beneficiaries, dental exams for 75 percent of beneficiaries, eye glasses for 75 percent of beneficiaries, and hearing aids for 86 percent beneficiaries.

Under H.R. 3’s Medicare expansion, 93 percent of beneficiaries (98,800 people) stand to gain from adding a dental benefit, 75 percent of beneficiaries stand to gain from adding a vision benefit, and 97 percent (102,700 people) of beneficiaries stand to gain from adding a hearing benefit.

On December 6, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) released an updated version of their bipartisan Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act of 201. Will McConnell, who controls its legislative fate, allow it to be considered on the Senate floor? Can a conference committee iron out the different between a Senate bill and H.R. 3, that can be pass both chambers and be signed by the president?

The legislative clock is ticking. It’s 324 days until the upcoming 2020 presidential election and the voters are demanding Congress to put aside philosophical policy differences and come up with a compromise that will truly put the brakes on rising drug costs. We’ll see.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.