Orlando Sentinel

Dems push to retool health care programs for millions

- By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Lisa Mascaro

WASHINGTON — Dental work for seniors on Medicare. An end to sky’s-the-limit pricing on prescripti­on drugs. New options for long-term care at home. Coverage for low-income people locked out of Medicaid by ideologica­l battles.

Those are just some of the changes to health care that Democrats want to achieve with President Joe Biden’s massive “Build Back Better” plan. The $3.5 trillion domestic agenda bill touches almost all aspects of American life, from taxes to climate change, but the health care components are a cornerston­e for Democrats, amplified during the COVID-19 crisis.

For the nearly 145 million Americans covered by government health programs, along with their families and communitie­s, the investment in the nation’s services could make a difference in the quality of life for decades.

“It’s a holistic look at how health care can be not just expanded, but better directed to the needs that people actually have,” Kathleen Sebelius, federal health secretary under President Barack Obama, said of the Biden bill. “You’ve got a plan that’s really aimed at the serious gaps in health care that are still causing people to either go totally uninsured, or run out of money in the course of their treatments.”

But Democrats can only succeed if they bridge divisions among themselves. Don’t look for Republican­s to help.

With Medicare’s longterm finances under a cloud, Republican­s say now is not the time to add new benefits. They are planning to oppose not just the health care provisions, but the entire Biden package, voting lockstep against it as too big, costly and a slide toward “socialism.”

Mindful of the politics ahead, Democrats are assembling the package with their slim hold on Congress. Instead of launching new experiment­s that many progressiv­es prefer, they have chosen to plow more resources into existing programs, from Medicare and Medicaid enacted during the Great Society to the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.

It’s a compromise, of sorts, led by Biden’s approach, paid for by taxes on corporatio­ns and the wealthy, those earning more than $400,000, as well as savings on prescripti­on drug prices paid by the government to the pharmaceut­ical companies.

“I’ve said many times before: I believe we’re at an inflection point in this country — one of those moments where the decisions we’re about to make can change — literally change — the trajectory of our nation for years and possibly decades to come,” Biden said in remarks last week at the

White House.

Polling has shown that core health care provisions appeal to voters across political lines. Many Republican voters, for example, generally approve of Medicare negotiatin­g prescripti­on drug prices, even if GOP lawmakers do not. While the Obama health law focused mainly on helping uninsured working-age people and their families, Biden’s coda puts a big emphasis on older people, who also happen to be reliable midterm election voters.

With key centrist Democrats, including Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, saying the overall $3.5 trillion price tag is too high, Democrats are looking for ways to cut costs, either by eliminatin­g some programs or, more likely, shaving some costs or duration off what has been proposed.

Other Democrats, though, warned that a slimmer package might disappoint voters who sent them to Washington on their promises to make big changes.

 ?? BRETT COOMER/HOUSTON CHRONICLE 2019 ?? Dental work for seniors on Medicare is just one of the things Democrats want to achieve with the “Build Back Better” plan.
BRETT COOMER/HOUSTON CHRONICLE 2019 Dental work for seniors on Medicare is just one of the things Democrats want to achieve with the “Build Back Better” plan.

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