House in hand, Dems to steer health policy
WASHINGTON — For the first time since passing the Affordable Care Act, Democrats will soon control the House of Representatives and its powerful health committees. But Republicans’ tightened grip on the Senate means those hoping for another round of dramatic, progressive reforms may be disappointed.
Empowered by voters outraged over Republican attempts to chip away at the law’s protections for the sick, Democrats owe much of their midterm gains to health care issues. Democratic leaders say they are ready to get back to work, this time training their sights on skyrocketing drug prices, among other policy conundrums, with a majority of House votes and a slate of new committee chairmanships in hand.
In a few weeks, House Democrats will meet to elect their leaders, including several committee chairs who will be responsible for the nation’s health care policy and spending in the coming years.
Those basking in a post-“blue wave” glow would do well to temper their expectations, recalling that the Republican-controlled House had already voted 54 times to unravel some or all of the Affordable Care Act by its fourth birthday in 2014. In most cases, Democrats in the Senate and White House stopped those efforts in their tracks.
With the Senate (and the presidency) remaining under Republican control and even fewer moderate Republicans left in the House after this election, Democrats will struggle to move legislation without Republican support. What they can do is hold hearings, launch investigations and generally unnerve the pharmaceutical industry, among other likely adversaries.
Among the key Democratic players:
Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, who has served in the House for 30 years, became the top Democrat on the influential Committee of Energy and Commerce in 2015. Should he become chairman, he would be responsible for the broadest health portfolio in the House, which includes Medicaid, public health, insurance and drug safety. This is the committee that marked up the Affordable Care Act in 2009 (when Pallone chaired the health subcommittee) and the House Republican repeal effort in 2017.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland could prove the pharmaceutical industry’s biggest headache come next year. Having served as the committee’s ranking member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform since 2011, he has been champing at the bit to hold drugmakers accountable.
The Committee on Ways and Means oversees Medicare and influences health policy through its jurisdiction over taxes. Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, who became the top Democrat on the committee in 2017, has played a part in the crafting of both the Affordable Care Act and the failed reform effort under the Clinton administration in 1993.
If chosen, Rep. Nita Lowey of New York would become the first woman to chair the powerful House Committee on Appropriations, holding the nation’s purse strings. She has been a dedicated advocate for investing in biomedical research into major diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s, as well as public health programs like pandemic preparedness. She has also long championed women’s health issues.