End Filibuster and Use Federal Government to Secure Elections

Published in RINewsToday.com on October 4, 2021

The clock is ticking… It’s 399 days before the upcoming midterm elections.

Following the Democrats winning the White House and taking control of both the House and Senate chambers, Republican-controlled state houses across the nation moved quickly to pass restrictive legislation to block access to vote. The Republican lawmakers see this legislative strategy as a way to protect election integrity. On the other hand, Democrats say the Republican legislative efforts are in large part motivated by false voter fraud claims coming out of the 2020 elections that continue to this day.

According to the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice (BCJ), “between   and July 14 2021, at least 18 states enacted laws that restrict access for the vote. These laws make mail voting and early voting more difficult, impose harsher voter ID requirements, and make faulty voter purges more likely among other things.More than 400 bills with provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions.”

“There may be more new state voting laws still to come this year. Active regular legislative sessions continue in California, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And Maine’s special legislative session is ongoing,” warns BCJ.

At the same time, more than 900 bills were dropped in the legislative hopper expanding voter access in 49 states during the 2021 legislative session, says BCJ, noting that at least, 25 states enacted 54 laws with provisions to expand voting access. These laws expanded access to early and mail voting, make voter registration easier, and restoring voting rights to Americans with past convictions.

Democratic lawmakers say Congress has the power to block Republican efforts at the state level to restrict access to voting.As of March 2021, the For the People Act passed by the House now awaits action in the Senate, and would reduce the impact of many state-level restrictions by creating new national standards for elections, while preventing common forms of voter suppression and easing access to voting. Democrats are also pushing for passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to protect voters by preventing discriminatory election laws from being implemented.

Safeguarding Ballot Access for Seniors

The Washington, DC-based National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) along with 40 senior advocates and political influencers, call on Senators Krysten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) to support changes to the filibuster to protect older Americans’ voting rights. So long as the moderate Senators oppose filibuster reform, Senate Democrats have no legislative path to enact S.1, For the People Act, legislative, passed by the House to ensure voting rights.  Under current Senate rules, Senate Republicans can block S.1 through a filibuster, a legislative procedure requiring a “supermajority” of 60 votes for passage.  Democrats need to pass filibuster reform to pass this legislation.

In a Sept. 21 letters to the two moderate Senators, NCPSSM President and CEO Max Richtman writes that adjusting the Senate filibuster is the only way to safeguard ballot access for seniors if enough Republican Senators won’t support new federal voting rights legislation.  Such legislation is necessary, says Richtman, because of restrictive, new state laws that infringe on seniors’ right to vote by mail.

“We urge you to support a narrow change to the filibuster rule to allow the Senate to approve new voting rights legislation by a simple majority vote. This crucial legislation will help to protect our democracy and the right to vote for all Americans, including older Arizonans who cast ballots by mail,” says Richtman. 

“Currently, seniors who are immobile, sick, or don’t want to risk being infected by the delta COVID variant can request mail ballots — along with those who cannot drive or lack access to mass transit,” says Richtman. “Voting by mail allows these older citizens to exercise their constitutional rights in a safe, convenient way. In 2020, the majority of voters over age 65 cast their ballots by mail.  Multiple studies have shown vote-by-mail to be consistently free of fraud,” he says.

Richtman urged Sinema and Minchin to support a narrow change to the filibuster rule to allow the Senate to approve S. 1, the For the People Act, by a simple majority vote. “This crucial legislation will help to protect our democracy and the right to vote for all Americans, including older Arizonans who depend on voting by mail,” he says.

According to Richtman, study findings note that vote-by-mail to be consistently free of fraud.  For instance, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study results show that  only 0.00006% of 250 million votes by mailed ballots nationwide were fraudulent. Additionally, scholars at Stanford University analyzing 1996-2018 data in California, Utah and Washington found vote-by-mail did not advantage one political party over another, he said.

During the 2020 elections, many seniors chose to vote-by-mail to exercise their right to vote, more important to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Richtman, noting that 41% of voters age 50-64 and 55% of voters over age 65 voted by mail in the 2020 election. 

“The safety and convenience of this method of voting is likely to prove equally effective in future elections – unless state legislatures decide to obstruct voting by mail,” adds Richtman.

Richtman said, “Given the advantages and encouraging results of the nation’s vote-by-mail experience, and the paucity of evidence of voter fraud, we question why so many states are moving in the opposite direction – to discourage vote-by-mail.”

Ensuring Voter Access Once and For All

“The For the People Act would protect all Americans from new state voter suppression laws by setting national mail-in voting standards and guaranteeing no-excuse mail-in voting,” says Richtman, noting that  S. 1 requires states to give every voter the option to vote by mail, calls for prepaid postage for all election materials and state-provided drop boxes for federal races.

House passes Budget resolution – Seniors would benefit

Published in Rhode Island News Today on August 30, 2021

During a late-night negotiating session held Monday, Aug. 23, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mended fences and brought centralist Democrats led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), back to the fold. The next day, a united Democratic caucus adopted the Senate-passed $3.5 trillion budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 14) for fiscal year 2022, by a party vote of 220-212.

In order to push the budget resolution over the goal line, Pelosi had hammered out an agreement with 9 Democrat moderates, some representing swing states, to schedule a nonbinding vote on a separate, Senate bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure package. Once the Senate bill is passed by the House chamber and signed by President Biden, the new law would authorize new federal spending to repair the nation’s highways, bridges, waterways, encourage transition of gas to electric cars, modernize airports, expand high speed internet and to protect the nations to electric grid. President Joe Biden considers the legislation to be “a once-in-a-generation investment in our infrastructure.”

“We are committed to passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill. We have long had an eye to having the infrastructure bill on the president’s desk by Oct. 1, the effective date of the legislation,” says House Speaker Pelosi.

The passage of the House budget resolution also clears the way for a vote on legislation what would restore portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required localities with histories of voter suppression to get federal clearance before making changes to election laws. 

The Budget resolution, advancing President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, also included reconciliation instructions to provide Senate Democratic leadership with the means to pass a comprehensive reconciliation package, without the threat of a Republican filibuster, with just 51 votes in the Senate, rather than the usual 60 votes. 

Now it is sausage making time as 13 House Committees and 12 Senate Committees begin to craft legislative text, allocating the $3.5 trillion to various investment priorities, to fulfill the reconciliation instructions with a tentative deadline to submit tax and spending legislation by Sept. 15. Committees begin marking up their contributions to the Budget reconciliation package during the week of Sept. 6.

House Adopts Sweeping Legislative Reforms

“The historic passage of this budget resolution puts Congress on track to pass some of the most sweeping legislative reforms in more than a half-century. As President Biden likes to say, ‘Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value,” stated Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI) in a statement released after the budget resolution’s passage.

“This budget paves the path for the Build Back Better Plan to make historic investments in lowering costs for health care, prescription drugs, and childcare while cutting taxes for middle class families and creating millions of new jobs to tackle the existential threat of climate change,” said the Rhode Island lawmaker. Even better, it’s completely paid for by making sure the wealthiest Americans and largest corporations pay their fair share in taxes, he says.

“The transformative investments in women and families – including childcare, paid leave, home-based care and universal free pre-K – will unlock the full economic potential of parents in the workforce and boost our economy. This is the first step in the process, but I’m hopeful this investment in hardworking American families will be able to make our country stronger than ever before America’s seniors will see the strengthening of the nation’s social safety net by allocating billions for affordable housing, home, adds Cicilline. 

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) slammed the passage of the House budget resolution which included a provision to allow Democrats to bypass debate and a separate vote on the Senate-passed budget for fiscal year 2022, which includes reconciliation instructions to usher in $3.5 trillion in new federal spending on socialist-style programs.

“I am astounded by the irresponsible manner in which Speaker Pelosi operated the House this week, simply because she could not get members of her own party in line and on board with her will and wishes,” states Cole. “As a result, Speaker Pelosi had the House skip critical debate and an individual vote on a consequential budget resolution solely intended to trigger $3.5 trillion worth of radical tax-and-spend legislation. Instead of going through the normal process, the reckless budget was buried in another measure to ensure its adoption, whether a majority of support actually existed within the Democratic Caucus,” adds Cole.  

Strengthening the Nation’s Social Safety Net

According to a blog posting, “The House-passed Budget Resolution Holds Historic Promise for Seniors,” on the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare’s (NCPSSM) website, the House budget resolution expands Medicare benefits by adding dental, vision and hearing coverage to traditional Medicare. “This expanded coverage is crucial to seniors overall health, since the absence of proper dental, vision and hearing care can increase the risk of grave medical consequences – from dementia to disabling injuries. Seniors have not seen their Medicare benefits expanded since 2003, with the passage of the significant but flawed D prescription drug program,” says NCPSSM.

NCPSSM says that the Democratic budget blueprint “will aim to correct the main shortcomings in Medicare Part D by allowing the program to negotiate drug prices directly with Big Pharma.  This will save beneficiaries an estimated $102 billion over 10 years.

NCPSSM adds that the budget resolution would allocate billions of new federal Medicaid dollars to support Home and Community-based Services (HCBS).  This historic new level of funding would allow seniors to age in place in their community rather than being institutionalized. “Research has shown that older people have better health outcomes when they can remain in their homes and communities. Meanwhile, the pandemic has only highlighted the risks of putting seniors into nursing homes, notes the blog article.

It’s Wait and See

Will Sens. Kysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D.V.), who are concerned over the cost of the emerging reconciliation bill, stay with their Democratic colleagues when a vote takes place? There is no wiggle room for passage if they choose not to cast their votes with the Democratic caucus.

With a slim Democratic majority in both the House and Senate chambers, the political necessity of keeping their caucuses unified in passing legislation may well result in paring down spending levels. We may well see a smaller expansion of Medicare and less funding for HCBS.

Stay tuned. 

Democrats Put High Drug Costs on Radar Screen

Published in Woonsocket Call on September 30, 2018

On August 21, at an afternoon Democratic Senate hearing titled “America Speaks Out: The Urgent Need to Tackle Health Care Costs and Prescription Drug Prices,” Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Ron Wyden (D-WA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tina Smith (D-MN), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Joe Manchin (D-WV), gathered to hear the personal stories of witnesses who have struggled with paying for the high cost of prescription drugs and listen to an expert who tracks price trends for prescription drugs widely used by older Americans.

In the last 18 years prescription drug prices have risen 3 times faster than physician and clinical services,” says DPCC’s chairwoman Stabenow in her opening statement. “We pay the highest prices in the world. The outrages prices force people to skip doses, split pills in half and even go without the medication they need,” she says, calling this problem a “matter of life and death,” says Stabenow.

Democrats believe health care to be a basic human right, while the GOP considers it to be a commodity to go to the highest bidder, adds Stabenow, denoting the philosophical differences of the two political parties.

Wyden, Ranking Member on the Senate Finance Committee who sits on the DPCC, recalled that two years ago when then presidential candidate Donald Trump was on the campaign trail pledged to make sure Medicare would negotiate like crazy to hold down costs for seniors and taxpayers. While Trump is well into one year and a half into his term, Americans year ad half into his term Americans believe it is crazy that we are still not negotiating to hold down the cost of medicine.

Wyden and his fellow DPCC committee members also call for Medicare to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

Senate DPCCs Puts Spotlight on Rising Drug Costs

At the Senate’s DPCC’s hearing, Witness Nicole Smith-Holt, a Minnesota state employee, and mother of four children shared a tragic story about her 26-year old diabetic son, Alec, who had died because he could not afford his copay of $1,300 for diabetic supplies and insulin.

The Richfield, Minnesota resident recounted how her son tried to ration the insulin to make it last until his next paycheck, but he died as a result of diabetic ketoacidosis.

Stahis Panagides, an 80-year old Bethesda, Maryland retiree, testified that he could not afford to pay $ 400 per month for prescribed Parkinson’s medication. He could not pay for the new course of treatment, recommended by his neurologist, even with a supplemental Medicare plan, he says, so he just refused to take it.

Retired social worker John Glaser, a long-time grassroots organizer for the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, came before the Democratic committee, saying “Medicare drug benefits and the Affordable Care Act’s closing of the coverage ‘donut hole’ have made a huge difference in my life and are invaluable for the quality of my life. Without these improvements he would have spent about $5,000 one-of-pocket on prescription drugs last year, he notes.

Glaser also shared that his brother, who is afflicted with diabetes, heart problems, and kidney disease, takes over 50 pills every day. “If my brother had to pay the full price for all of those drugs, he’d be living on the street,” he says.

Marques Jones, who has Multiple Sclerosis (MS), told the Senators that his MS medication costs about $75,000 annually. Despite having robust insurance coverage, Jones’ annual out-of-pocket spending on drug co-pays and insurance premiums for his family of five is very high. This has caused the resident of Richmond, Virginia to become a vocal advocate for those who suffer from MS.

Finally, Leigh Purvis, Director, Health Services Research, AARP Public Policy Institute, a coauthor of the AARP Public Policy Institute’s annual RX Price Watch Reports, warned that today’s prescription drug price trends are not sustainable. “The current system is simply shifting costs onto patients and taxpayers while drug companies remain free to set incredibly high prices and increase them any time that they want,” says Purvis, noting that Congressional efforts to reduce prescription drug prices could save billions of dollars.

AARP Report Tracks Skyrocketing Drug Costs

One month after Senate’s DPCC’s hearing, a new AARP report, released on September 27, 2018, says that retail prices for many of the most commonly-used brand name drugs prescribed to older adults by older adults increased by an average of 8.4 percent in 2017, greater than the general inflation rate of 2.1 percent. The annual average cost of therapy for just one brand name drug increased to almost $6,800 in 2017, says the AARP researchers.

According to the new “Rx Price Watch Report: Trends in Retail Prices of Prescription Drugs Widely Used by Older Americans: 2017 Year-End Update,” released just days ago, revealed that for over a decade, brand name drug prices have “exceeded the general inflation rate of other consumer goods by a factor of two-fold to more than 100-fold.”

If retail drug price charges had reflected the general inflation rate between 2006 and 2017, the average annual cost for one brand name drug in 2017 would have been $2,178 instead of $6,798, said the AARP Public Policy report.

Taking multiple medications can be costly, says the AARP report. “For the average senior taking 4.5 medications each month, this would translate into an annual cost of therapy that is almost $21,000 less than the actual average cost of therapy in 2017 ($9,801 vs. $30,591), notes the findings of the AARP report.

“Despite years of relentless public criticism, brand name drug companies continue increasing the prices of their products at rates that far exceed general inflation,” said AARP Chief Public Policy Officer Debra Whitman, in a September 26 statement with the release of the AARP report. “It’s clear that we need long-term, meaningful policies that go beyond just hoping that the drug industry will voluntarily change its excessive pricing behavior,” adds Whitman.

“The average older American taking 4.5 prescription medications each month would have faced more than $30,000 in brand name costs last year,” adds Leigh Purvis, Director of Health Services Research, AARP Public Policy Institute, and co-author of the AARP report. “That amount surpasses the median annual income of $26,200 for someone on Medicare by more than 20 percent. No American should have to choose between paying for their drugs and paying for food or rent,” says Purvis.

Some highlights of AARP’s New Drug Cost Report

AARP report’s findings noted that brand name drug prices increased four times faster than the 2017 general inflation rate and that drug retail prices that year increased for 87 percent of the 267 brand name drugs studied.

Finally, research findings indicated that “retail prices for 113 chronic-use brand name drugs on the market since at least 2006 increased cumulatively over 12 years by an average of 214 percent compared with the cumulative general inflation rate of 25 percent between 2006 to 2017.”

In recent correspondence to the Secretary of the Health and Human Services, AARP calls for regulatory and legislative reforms that will allow the Secretary to be able to negotiate drug prices for Medicare, allowing the safe importation of lower cost drugs into the United States and ensuring that generic drugs can more easily enter the market. Now, AARP waits for a response.

Putting the breaks on the skyrocketing pharmaceutical costs might just be the bipartisan issue that the new Congress can tackle once the dust settles from the upcoming mid-term elections.

To watch DPCC’s August 21st Senate hearing, go to https://www.democrats.senate.gov/dpcc/hearings/senate-democrats-to-hold-hearing-with-americans-hurt-by-high-cost-of-prescription-drugs.

For a copy of AARP’s drug cost report, to http://www.aarp.org/rxpricewatch.