Darrell Berkheimer: Expect actions on drugs, infrastructure this year
January 4, 2019
The beginning of a new year is a time to be optimistic about some of the progress that might occur during the next 12 months.
The Union already has provided us with several stories recapping this past year's events, plus a couple of articles sharing insights into what developments we might expect locally this year. So now it's appropriate to view what we might expect to happen on the national scene. After noting the actions planned by the leaders of both major parties, I'll give my views on what we might reasonably expect to happen.
NBC News reported the agenda for House Democrats includes "lowering the cost of prescription drugs, passing ethics reform, protecting Obamacare and crafting an infrastructure package." And the Democrats reported they plan to roll out revisions to the Voting Rights Act as their first bill.
In addition, the new Democratic chairs of House committees already have announced they plan various Trump Administration investigations — plus the monumental task of obtaining Trump's tax returns.
On the Republican side, I have not yet seen any list of goals announced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. But we can be sure it will include confirmation hearings for new Cabinet nominees — plus continuation of the GOP's power to confirm more judicial nominees.
Meanwhile, California's Rep. Kevin McCarthy, as the new House Minority Leader, has noted his targets include making tax cuts permanent, securing military pay raises, curtailing the opioid epidemic and reducing the national debt.
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In examining each of those issues one at a time, I believe the Democrats will effectively block efforts to make the tax cuts permanent while the GOP will make sure that any ethics reform measures, if enacted, will lack strong enforcement. I also anticipate Senate Republicans will either block, dilute or weaken any revisions to the Voting Rights Act passed by Democrats in the House.
I do, however, expect the Republicans to agree to some legislation that will protect and improve various provisions of Obamacare — but only because they realize voters are demanding such actions, and that failure to do so will jeopardize their re-election efforts.
The Democrats, in turn, will agree to some military pay raises — particularly for the lower grades. Then the Dems will expect something in return — such as one or more cuts elsewhere in the defense budget.
Both parties will advance some form of infrastructure improvements package. How extensive it will be will depend on which party wins the debate on national debt issues, plus the amount of pressure applied by constituents, the states and large contractors.
A substantial infrastructure package is one of the best ways the current congress can make a major impact on jobs and our domestic economy. It could even repel a 2020 recession being predicted by some financial gurus.
The infrastructure package is one of the three major issues that should see some substantive actions in Congress this year. The other two are compromises that will lead to lower prescription drug prices and legislation to control opioids distribution.
As November's elections made it clear, healthcare is the nation's number one issue, and chief among voters' concerns are exorbitantly high drug prices. Also, Donald Trump promised, during his 2016 election campaign, to "negotiate like crazy" to get lower drug prices for Medicare. That promise dropped off the agenda as a result of some administration officials' closeness to the drugs industry.
But this past October Trump cited a renewed interest in cutting drug prices if Democrats won control of the House in November's elections. That was after Trump and his Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar proposed federal price controls for drugs in a plan revealed last May.
Democrats meanwhile have developed a multi-faceted plan for lowering drug costs. It includes allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prices; putting a cap on out-of-pocket costs for Medicare beneficiaries; forcing manufacturers transparency on costs and price increases, and making illegal tactics used to delay lower-cost generics.
Not only is it obvious that Republicans are feeling the heat to take action on the issue, but Big Pharma is fearing the results of such actions, according to a story published by the New York Times last Oct. 20. The Times described it as a "feeling of foreboding" that was settling in throughout the pharmaceutical industry.
One reason for that foreboding is the retirement of Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who has been one of the drug industry's most powerful allies. The Times noted Hatch likely will be succeeded by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, "who is more of a populist on health policy."
Grassley has supported allowing the importing of drugs from Canada, and he wrote parts of the law requiring drug companies to disclose payments made to doctors for various services.
In addition, the Times reported the industry's fear that existing laws would be cited to force reductions in the prices of drugs developed with the help of taxpayer funds.
The big question on that issue is: Why wasn't that done years ago?
For other actions that should be forced upon the drug companies as a result of their greed, I suggest readers check the long list reported in my column titled "The ways drug companies bilk our citizens," published by The Union on Oct. 14 of 2016.
It's that same greed by Big Pharma that resulted in our opioid crisis, which will be the subject of a massive court case in March before a federal judge in Cleveland. It's a conglomeration of many suits brought against the manufacturers and distributors of opioids by a large array of parties seeking compensation for alleged damages.
In addition, a group of 41 states' attorneys general are conducting parallel investigations prompted by lawsuits.
The leading attorney in the actions against the industry is former Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore, who took down Big Tobacco 20 years ago, when l3 tobacco companies were hit with a $246 billion settlement.
In one of the opioid suits, Summit County of Ohio reported 542,000 residents received an average of 36.5 million opioid pills per year — or 67 pills for every resident for every year from 2010 to 2016. In 2016 in that county, "an unintentional overdose was recorded every 3.6 hours on average, leading to 298 deaths," according to a report by Politico.
Attorney Moore calls the big drug companies "pretty evil" and claims they intentionally lied about the addictive properties of their drugs.
Is it any wonder why we can expect actions against the drug companies during the next 12 months?
Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to The Union. He is the author of six books available through Amazon. Contact him at email@example.com.