U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan joined health care advocates in a virtual roundtable Thursday as they called on Congress to help Pennsylvanians by investing more in home care and prescription affordability.
The two Democratic lawmakers touted the bills passed by the Democratic-led House of Representatives aimed at lowering health care costs and called on the Senate to use the reconciliation process to pass legislation that would help Pennsylvanians struggling with rising health care costs.
“We on the House side have passed the Better Care Better Jobs Act. We’ve also passed something called the Affordable Insulin Now Act and we’ve passed measures that allow the federal government to directly negotiate the cost of prescription drugs,” Houlahan, who represents the 6th Congressional District in Chester and Bucks counties, said. “It takes both the House and the Senate to be able to pass a piece of legislation. That’s why I’ve also signed two different letters to leadership that encourage and urge the upcoming reconciliation package to include the enhanced premium tax credits and to make sure we are including continued coverage and access to affordable health care past January 2023.”
The initial Better Care Better Jobs Act, which would fund improvements in home care and community-based care services, passed in the House last summer, while the Affordable Insulin Now Act, which would limit cost-sharing for insulin under private health insurance and the Medicare prescription drug benefit, passed the House in March.
Casey and Houlahan spoke with health care advocates from Protect Our Care Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Health Access Network and For Our Future Pennsylvania as the organizations presented a call to action to its members to contact their representatives and Sen. Pat Toomey about addressing health care costs.
During spending debates in March, Toomey and his fellow Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee wrote a letter opposing subsidy expansions and said Congress should focus on other rising costs workers and families are facing.
“Congress should be working to address the harmful effects of inflation and taking steps to address our ballooning debt crisis, driven by unsustainable mandatory spending,” the letter said. “The wrong approach is to double down on skyrocketing spending during record-high inflation by extending the poorly targeted and badly designed Obamacare subsidy hikes, including for Americans with sizable six-figure salaries.”
Throughout the roundtable, health care advocates outlined four priorities for the upcoming year, including allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, capping out-of-pocket costs for seniors, stopping drug corporations from raising the price of prescription medicines faster than inflation, and capping what Americans pay for insulin.
Shana Jalbert, director of communications and development for Pennsylvania Health Access Network, said PHAN receives more than 10,000 calls from residents every year with questions about their health care coverage. She added that her organization is fielding more calls than ever from people who say their budgets are being “squeezed as costs rise.”
“For people who’ve purchased their insurance through Pennie, enhanced tax credits have been an absolute lifesaver by reducing the cost of their health insurance,” Jalbert said. “But if Congress doesn't take action soon, we’re going to see that the nearly 375,000 Pennsylvanians who have benefitted from the subsidies will see their costs rise dramatically.”
Jilbert claimed that 374,776 Pennsylvanians signed up for coverage this year through the Affordable Care Act marketplace, adding that if Congress doesn’t expand ARP’s coverage savings past this year, residents around the commonwealth could experience up to $1,000 more in annual health care costs.
The calls to lower health care costs come as Pennsylvanians experience higher gas and grocery prices amid continued inflationary pressure. Increasing costs across the board are forcing people to make tough choices regarding their bills and medications. Mecca Taylor, a nurse from Philadelphia, said her insurance doesn’t cover her migraine medication, which now costs about $1,000 for three pills.
“It’s funny that I’m a nurse and I work to make sure my patients have the medication they need,” Taylor said, “and yet I myself can’t get the medication I need.
Casey said he’s hopeful the Senate can come together during the reconciliation process to help lower the cost of prescription drugs, but that’s just the beginning. He said when it comes to home and community-based care, investments must be made in the workforce.
“The reason we have 50 votes in the U.S. Senate to fund new initiatives on home and community-based care is because of the demand. Whether you go to a blue state or red state or purple state, families are justifiably demanding that we have home and community-based services for seniors,” Casey said. “Part of the priority has to be to invest in the workforce. You can't have the best home care system in the world – which we should all strive to have – if you're paying people $12 an hour. That's not going to work.”
If the Senate were to pursue this legislation during the reconciliation process, Democrats could avoid the filibuster, needing just 50 votes and the vice president’s tiebreaker to pass a tax-and-spending bill. While remaining hopeful for the future of health care discussions in the Senate, Casey didn’t indicate those calls to action will be answered soon. Casey’s version of the Better Care Better Jobs Act in the Senate currently has 39 cosponsors, including 37 Democrats and two Independents. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Finance.