Bilirakis talks health care reform

Health care reform was the main topic during U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis’s visit to Zephyrhills last week.

Bilirakis, who represents Florida’s 12th congressional district, was the featured speaker during The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce monthly meeting on Aug. 3.

He said he was “very disappointed” when the Republican party’s reform and repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) stalled in the Senate.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis gives members of The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce his take on what’s happening in Washington D.C., regarding health care reform. (Kevin Weiss)

The so-called skinny repeal bill, which the GOP titled the Health Care Freedom Act, would have eliminated the ACA’s individual mandate; delayed the employer mandate until 2025; allowed states greater flexibility in implementing market reforms, such as essential health benefits and out-of-pocket spending limits; and increased Health Savings Account limits for three years, among other changes.

However, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the skinny repeal bill would have increased the number of uninsured by 16 million over the next nine years and increased health care exchange premiums by more than 20 percent.

The measure sank on July 27, in a 49-51 Senate vote, with three Republican senators — Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John McCain of Arizona — joining the entire Democratic caucus against the bill.

The action, Bilirakis said, displayed his party’s inability to stick together.

“To be honest with you, you can’t keep voting ‘no.’ Maybe you’re a hero at home, but you’ve got to work with the leadership to get things done,” he said.

Bilirakis acknowledged he “didn’t agree with everything” in the bill, but noted it was a good starting point to replace Obamacare.

“Obamacare is failing,” Bilirakis said to a roomful of constituents. “Seventy-three percent of the counties in our state only have one provider…so we have to fix it, we have to do something different, we have to bring the (deductibles) down.

“Now, don’t get me wrong, we want to take care of the pre-existing conditions. I want to make sure that everyone has access to mental health treatment, if their family member needs it or if they need it. These are very important issues to me, they’re close to my heart,” he added.

Bilirakis said he wanted to see the skinny bill pass, mainly so it could be improved in a House-Senate conference committee.

“We don’t do that very often anymore,” he said, “where we go to conference, appoint Republicans and Democrats in a room, and make it work.”

Meanwhile, Bilirakis assigned blame to both parties for not crafting a viable bipartisan solution on health care.

“We’ve got to think of the country first, and work together. That’s what voters mostly want,” Bilirakis said.

“With health care, it shouldn’t be a political issue. It’s a personal issue, and both parties should be involved in getting this done, because both parties have good ideas,” he later added.

He also criticized President Donald Trump for his shifting stance on health care. Regarding Obamacare, the president has waffled on the following actions:

  • Repeal and replace
  • Repeal only, then replace
  • Let it “fail.”

“Listen, I am a Trump supporter, but he’s got to be consistent in what his plan is,” Bilirakis said. “These members (of the Senate) are not going to buy it, just saying we’ve got to pass a bill. It’s got to be a good bill.”

Bilirakis, though, did credit the president for reducing regulations on U.S. businesses, as well as the soaring stock market— the Dow Jones industrial average passed the 22,000 mark for the first time on Aug. 3.

“The economy’s much better. We are making a difference, but we can do better,” Bilirakis said.

Elsewhere, the congressman discussed some of his recently introduced bills, such as The Lower Costs Through Competition Act and The Open Act, both related to health care.

The Lower Costs Through Competition Act, co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, seeks to reduce prescription drug prices by speeding up Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of high-cost generic products, which lack competition.

Bilirakis pointed to last year’s EpiPen controversy, where Mylan, the makers of the life saving, anti-allergic reaction device, increased its product price by nearly 400 percent, to $700 for a twin-pack.

“The EpiPen situation — that was horrible,” he said. “There’s a couple of other drugs like that, and you have these monopolies out there that are taking advantage, and so we want to make we speed up the FDA process, the approval process and incentivize these companies to reduce the prices.”

The bill, introduced in January, has since been referred to the House Subcommittee on Health.

“It’s a no-brainer, but in (Washington) D.C., sometimes the no-brainers won’t pass, so you’ve got to keep pushing,” said Bilirakis.

Meanwhile, Bilirakis’ Orphan Products Extension Now (OPEN) Act — which also has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Health — would provide incentives for drug makers to repurpose mainstream treatments, at mainstream prices.

According to Bilirakis, there are 7,000 rare diseases affecting 30 million Americans, and yet 95 percent of those conditions have no approved treatment or cure.

The bill, as it stands, amends the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to require the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to extend by six months the exclusivity period for a drug or biological product approved by the FDA when the product is additionally approved to prevent, diagnose, or treat a new indication that is a rare disease or condition (also known as an orphan disease).

A common issue, Bilirakis explained, is those afflicted with rare diseases resort to off-label drugs for treatment. “We’ve got to find cures and treatments. We want to make sure it’s safe, we want to make sure we have a proper dosage,” he said.

Published August 9, 2017

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