Government

Guest Column

Menendez Calls for Bipartisan Review of Affordable Care Act

Senator Robert Menendez Credits: gettyimages.com

WASHINGTON, DC - In 2003, when President George Bush and the Republican Congress passed the Medicare Part D prescription drug program, I voted against it. Like most Democrats, I couldn’t support a plan that left millions of seniors – including my mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s – with huge prescription drug bills under what would later become known as the Medicare “donut hole.”

But once Part D became law, Democrats didn’t fight to repeal it. Not even after the program’s disastrous rollout in 2006, when seniors were literally turned away from pharmacies nationwide. Unlike Republicans in Congress, who today remain fixated on destroying the ACA, we didn’t try to defund it, or undermine it in the courts, or smear it for political gain. Nor did President Barack Obama try to sabotage it.

Instead, Democrats made improving a Republican-designed prescription drug program a cornerstone of health care reform. When we finally passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, we included measures to close the Part D “donut hole” – reforms that have since saved New Jersey’s seniors over $1.3 billion, and more than $26 billion for Medicare beneficiaries nationwide.

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For us, the prize wasn’t about destroying a program signed into law by a Republican president. It was about ensuring that America’s seniors never had to choose between eating and refilling their medications. Indeed, Democrats have always been clear about our motivations. We believe that all Americans deserve health care – no matter where they live, how much money they make, or what medical conditions they may have.

However, it remains unclear what Republicans hope to achieve with their vendetta against Obamacare. For seven years, they attacked the ACA for political gain, pledging to repeal and replace it with something better. But the American people overwhelmingly rejected their cruel plan to lavish the top 1 percent with tax cuts they don’t need, paid for by taking health care away from those who need it most.

When their bill was pronounced dead earlier this week, Democrats made clear that our offer for bipartisan cooperation was still alive. Their partisan process failed. We must return to regular order so that committees can do their work, hold public hearings and develop bipartisan solutions to stabilize the private market, lower premiums and reduce costs for everyone.

Unfortunately, Republicans have dug in their heels, rebuffing calls for bipartisanship. If Republican leaders cannot flip enough of their members to support their wildly unpopular plan, this week they will likely vote to repeal the ACA with no replacement at all. This reckless act would strip 32 million Americans of their coverage, double premiums and leave three out of four Americans with just one insurer, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

New Jerseyans would suffer tremendously under an all-out repeal, with nearly 840,000 people losing coverage by 2026. Our state’s budget woes would go from bleak to catastrophic, with federal health funding for New Jersey cut by $4.2 billion each year and 86,000 jobs destroyed. And everyone would lose the ACA’s protections against insurance company abuses, like imposing lifetime limits on care, or dropping coverage due to pre-existing conditions.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., second from right, accompanied by, from left, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday. President Trump blasted congressional Democrats and “a few Republicans” over the collapse of the GOP effort to rewrite the Obama health care law. 

It’s time that Republicans drop this destructive repeal effort and pledge to do no harm. No law is perfect – but we don’t need to threaten the financial security of millions of families, bankrupt states by gutting Medicaid, or wreak havoc on our health care sector to address the imperfections. 

As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, I’m proud to have helped write the ACA. It took nearly a year of hard work and compromise with both Republicans and Democrats to get it done. At the time, I warned that it didn’t do enough to guarantee affordability, and that not including a public option would drive up costs for consumers. But even with these concerns, I voted for it because I knew it would make a huge difference in people’s lives.

We’ve made historic progress under the ACA, but Democrats know we still face major challenges that demand bipartisan cooperation. America’s health care system is the most innovative in the world; it’s also the most expensive, and lags behind on outcomes. Congress must consult with doctors, economists and industry stakeholders to tackle the tough questions. How do we promote innovation while cutting costs? Or better manage chronic diseases that cost billions each year? Or bring transparency to the system, empower consumers and promote competition?

It’s time for Republicans to build upon our recent gains, not destroy them. Punishing families with higher costs and less coverage by repealing the ACA or sabotaging it administratively is no solution. Industry leaders have confirmed the Trump administration could help them limit premium increases by working to stabilize the marketplace instead of stoking uncertainty.

Confronted with the harsh reality of governing, Republicans must recognize that their actions have real consequences.  Voting to take insurance away from millions of people was easy when President Obama could spare them the consequences of their actions with the stroke of his veto pen.

The time for political games is long over. As the governing party, Republicans are now playing with people’s lives – and the economic future of our country.  It’s time to come together.

Robert Menendez, D-Paramus, is the senior U.S. senator from New Jersey.

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