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Freshman Democrat: Party must do better job selling health care during impeachment

But Pennsylvania Rep. Susan Wild gets no questions on drug prices at town hall

Rep. Susan Wild, D-PA., holds a town hall meeting at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Democrats have more work to do to show voters the House is trying to lower drug prices and protect coverage for pre-existing conditions even while it pursues possible impeachment, freshman Rep. Susan Wild told constituents at a town hall meeting Wednesday.

Wild and Democrats like her helped flip control of the House by winning Republican-held seats last year with campaigns focused on health care. She wants to do the same in 2020, but found herself having to try to fit answers about health care into questions about impeachment and other issues at the 90-minute event at Muhlenberg College.

For example, she brought up salaries of pharmaceutical executives in an answer about income inequality, and noted her campaign does not accept funds from the industry.

“When I am asked by the news media, ‘What does your district think about the impeachment inquiry?’ my answer is my district is more interested in knowing about prescription drug prices and what we’re going to do about the price of insulin,” Wild told the crowd of close to 300 people. “That’s exactly what I’m committed to. We don’t all know about it and I don’t think that we’ve probably done enough of a good job of messaging it.”

Wild’s district could serve as a test case on whether Democrats can keep their focus on health care issues in 2020. Her race is rated Solid Democrat by Inside Elections, but Hillary Clinton won the district by 1 percentage point in 2016.

Wild won her seat last November by 10 points along with a special election to replace former Republican Rep. Charlie Dent, who resigned in 2018.

The freshman congresswoman took questions on “Medicare for All” proposals and access to cancer treatment. She told constituents about a bill that House Democrats introduced last month meant to lower drug prices, including for insulin, the lifesaving drug for diabetics that Wild says she hears about daily. 

But Wild didn’t receive a question on drug prices specifically, and several attendees said they hadn’t heard much about the drug pricing bill, although many Democrats are eager to focus on it.

“Does anybody in this room care about the cost of prescription drugs and what it means to America's working families?” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California asked a room full of Capitol Hill reporters earlier in the day.

While questions here about impeachment elicited passionate responses from the crowd, the conversation focused primarily on such issues as climate change, the Green New Deal and education. Wild said it’s the job of moderate Democrats like herself to tout what the House is doing to address issues like those during the impeachment inquiry, Wild said.

“It’s our job to make sure, No. 1, that [impeachment] does not overshadow everything else that needs to get done — the reason most of us got elected, quite candidly — and to make sure that the people with pre-existing conditions are protected,” she said.

John Jaffe, a doctor from near Allentown, stood up during the town hall to press Wild on why Washington can’t move beyond “constant, nonstop fighting.”

Jaffe’s comments on the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and a question about former Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s role in firing a Ukraine prosecutor, were drowned out by boos from the audience, which had been generally supportive of Wild’s backing of the inquiry.

“I did admire when you said you did several collaborative bills,” Jaffe said to some applause. “More Americans will be happy to hear more of that and less of the accusations du jour.”

Wild used those comments as a chance to explain that she had “no interest” in an impeachment inquiry when she was elected to Congress. She explained that she felt Congress had no choice but to open an inquiry to set a precedent for future administrations before pivoting to “the work that we need to do,” namely the prescription drug pricing bill.

Health care concerns

A Muhlenberg College senior, who introduced herself as a non-Hodgkins Lymphoma patient named Taylor, asked what Wild she’s doing to expand access to cancer care in the Lehigh Valley. Wild used that as a chance to talk more broadly about health care.

“We have an under-resourced health care system,” Wild said, noting that she co-sponsored a bill to increase the number of residency programs in the United States and that she is focused on the cost of medical education. “I see it as much of a much bigger picture.”

Her town hall came a day before President Donald Trump is set to sign an executive order to bolster private insurance plans in Medicare, which is meant to draw a contrast with some Democrats’ calls to expand Medicare through government-run health care.

Wild signed on as a co-sponsor to a Medicare for All bill, but said she doesn’t envision that type of government-run care as Congress’ immediate next step on health coverage.

“Do I think we have to get the profit motive out of health care? Ideally, yes. Do I think that’s going to happen tomorrow? No,” she said in answer to a question about removing the profit motive from the health care industry. “I believe very strongly that we must improve the Affordable Care Act and include a public option in the next iteration.”

The same night, in Staten Island, N.Y., fellow freshman Democrat Rep. Max Rose, was also asked to support Medicare for All, though Rose does not support a single-payer system.

“We can look at cost, we can look at choice, and we can establish universality,” he said. “We certainly have to lower the age of eligibility but we also have got to have a public option.”

Price negotiation ‘essential’

Democrats hope to move quickly this fall on legislation to lower drug prices. Three committees are set to vote on the bill later this month and a House floor vote could quickly follow. Still, it’s not clear whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will take up a drug pricing bill in that chamber.

While Democrats say they hope to strike a deal on drug pricing, Trump has suggested it would be difficult to do at this time. 

Some Senate Republicans, led by Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, hope to pass drug pricing legislation, too. Grassley’s proposal wouldn’t allow Medicare to negotiate prices, which will almost certainly complicate any effort to combine the two bills, since most Democrats are adamant about including that provision in legislation.

“Price negotiation is absolutely essential to getting drug prices down,” Wild said. “I would have a very hard time agreeing to anything that doesn’t include that.”

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