Despite the coronavirus emergency, TSCL is continuing its fight to protect your Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits. We've had to make some adjustments in the way we carry on our work, but we have not, and will not stop our work on your behalf.
Members of Congress remained out of Washington last week, but they had expected to return this week to resume working on legislation. However, the Congressional leadership in both Houses decided Congress will not return until May 4 because of the continued spread of the coronavirus. That May 4 date is, of course, a target. Events could cause them to have to remain out even longer. Only time will tell.
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Legislation to lower drug prices and stop surprising medical billing may be in trouble
TSCL has been fighting for several years to get Congress to pass legislation to lower prescription drug prices for seniors. In addition, for the last several months we have been fighting for other legislation to stop the practice of surprise medical billing, whereby someone receives an unexpected bill for health care that they thought was covered by their health insurance.
We knew it was going to be a tough fight to get both of those passed this year, with the possibility of surprise billing legislation being easier to pass than lower prescription drug prices. Nonetheless there was some hope that Congress would, in fact, pass legislation dealing with both issues by the end of May. But the rise of the coronavirus pandemic caused Congress to kick the can down the road until November 30.
This week TSCL participated in a conference call with Congressional reporters who now say that passing legislation for either of those is becoming less and less likely, at least until effective treatments for those affected by the coronavirus are developed and until a vaccine against the virus is available and our citizens are widely vaccinated.
With the urgent need to develop both of those, lawmakers are hesitant to cut into the profits of the drug companies we are depending upon to come up with them. In other words, the drug companies have us over a barrel for the time being.
Regardless of that, TSCL will continue to keep up the pressure on Congress and the President to take some kind of action on both issues. Perhaps there are other measures that could be considered right now such as reducing the cost of co-pays for drugs. We recognize that pharmaceutical manufacturers serve a vital mission in keeping us all healthy, but making sure they don't take advantage of those who are dependent on prescription drugs for our health, and sometimes for our very lives, has to be a priority of our lawmakers.
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Legislation to lower U.S. dependence on China for medical supplies
Each year Congress is supposed to pass two pieces of legislation regarding the Department of Defense. Normally, these would not be something TSCL would be involved with or report on.
However, we have all learned the hard way that health care is, in some circumstances, an issue of immediate national security. As has been widely reported, the U.S. is dangerously dependent on China for certain prescription and non-prescription drugs and other necessary medical clothing and equipment.
Between 80 percent and 90 percent of U.S. antibiotics, 70 percent of acetaminophen and about 40 percent of heparin are manufactured in China, in addition to most of the personal protective equipment that medical personnel need.
In early February of this year former U.S. health officials testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and warned that the United States’ ability to respond to an epidemic within its borders is critically hampered by its reliance on China for pharmaceutical products and insufficient funding for preparedness.
At that hearing the woman who led medical and biodefence preparedness in President Trump’s National Security Council (NSC) until 2019, testified that the US had failed to protect the supply of essential medicine and medical equipment.
The hearing was held as Senators were grappling with the Trump administration budget plan that proposed sweeping cuts to areas including health, scientific research and the environment for next year, including the health agencies charged with leading the response to the contagion.
Ominously, the Chinese government-run news agency that's considered to be a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party recently “claimed that China could impose pharmaceutical export controls which would plunge America into 'the mighty sea of coronavirus.'"
Because of that, there is now a provision in the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that would reduce some of that dependence. In addition, several members of Congress have introduced legislation that would do the same thing.
As long ago as last October, Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) introduced a bill – H.R. 4710 – that would direct the Secretary of Defense to “include in each national defense strategy steps to strengthen the United States industrial base and to assure an uninterrupted supply of medicines . . .”.
More recently Rep. Mike Gallagher (R- Wisc.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R- Ark.) introduced bills that would task a Food and Drug Administration registry with tracking drug ingredients, ban the federal government from buying drugs with a supply chain that originates in China, require drugs to be labeled with the name of the country where they came from and provide benefits to manufacturers who make their drugs or medical equipment in the U.S.
Other bills to reduce dependence on China for pharmaceuticals have also been introduced by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Josh Hawley, (R-Mo.).
Clearly, something needs to be done. But the problem is complicated by the fact that China and the U.S. have a massive amount of trade with one another. We in the U.S. have grown accustomed to buying much less expensive items that are made in China, while China buys a huge amount of our agricultural exports, among other things.
TSCL is going to watch this closely in the coming weeks and months because seniors are now, and will continue to be, affected by what happens regarding these Chinese-manufactured drugs.
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TSCL supports bill for free vaccinations for seniors
Ten thousand Americans turn 65 every day, which means the number of Medicare beneficiaries who need easy access to vaccines is constantly increasing. Vaccines are particularly important for older adults because our immune systems weaken with time. Adults age 50 and over are particularly susceptible to many vaccine-preventable diseases and account for a disproportionate number of the deaths and illnesses they cause. Therefore, older adults are most at risk of developing severe illness from coronavirus.
Improving adult access to vaccines can save thousands of lives and billions of dollars. The health care costs associated with low adult vaccine rates are high—each year, the U.S. spends $15 billion treating Medicare beneficiaries alone for four vaccine-preventable diseases (Flu, Pneumococcal, Shingles, Pertussis). Cost-sharing and co-pays for vaccinations recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices were removed for all Affordable Care Act compliant private plans in 2010; however, Medicare beneficiaries were left out of this change and can still face high out-of-pocket costs for vaccinations.
Currently, Medicare vaccine coverage is split between Medicare Part B (which covers physician services, outpatient services, certain home health services, and durable medical equipment) and Medicare Part D (which covers drugs). Seniors can access vaccines covered under Part B—such as flu, pneumonia and Hepatitis—with no out-of-pocket costs. However, under Part D, vaccines such as shingles and pertussis often include a cost to beneficiaries.
For seniors, most of whom live on fixed incomes, these additional costs may delay or even prevent them from getting vaccinated. That is simply not acceptable.
That's why TSCL is supporting the bi-partisan Protecting Seniors Through Immunization Act (H.R. 5076), which was introduced by Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) , with original co-sponsors Rep. Phil Roe (R- Tenn.), Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.), and Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.).
An identical bi-partisan bill (S. 1872) was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) with co-sponsors Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
While it is probable that when a vaccine is developed for the COVID-19 virus it will be available to all Americans without cost, this legislation is necessary to make sure that seniors who need vaccines that could save their very lives get them without worrying how to pay for them. We hope you'll contact your Senators and Representative and urge them to support these two bills.
For progress updates or for more information about these and other bills that would strengthen Social Security and Medicare programs, visit the Bill Tracking section of our website or follow TSCL on Twitter.