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Congressional Watch: Falsehoods and fears

Posted: February 23rd, 2018 | Columns, Congressional Watch, Featured, Politics | No Comments

By Andy Cohen | Congressional Watch

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) has a bone to pick with Scott Peters (D-52). In a recent TV ad that has aired widely in San Diego, the group claims that Peters is out to end a program called the 340B drug pricing program. That claim, to say the least, is a lie.

The 340B drug pricing program was put in place in 1992; it was expanded in 2003 and again in 2010. It is intended to provide participating hospitals and clinics with access to discounted drugs from pharmaceutical companies — 20–50 percent discounts in most cases — to help them better serve low-income communities.

Those savings are supposed to be put toward expanding access to medical care. The problem is that there are no regulations in place to ensure providers are using the program as intended, and some are instead using it to pad their profit margins by using those discounts for patients with adequate health insurance, then filing for reimbursement for the full, non-discounted price from insurance companies.

Hyperbole is a common tactic when it comes to political campaigns, but when it rises to the level of outright falsehoods to deliberately mislead voters and smear a candidate, let alone a sitting member of Congress, it becomes problematic.

The AHF’s ad rises to such a level.

Last year, the Trump administration announced that it was cutting $1.6 billion from the 340B program, putting a major strain on the budgets of many health care providers that serve rural and/or low-income communities.

In December, Peters helped to introduce a bipartisan (three Republican co-sponsors and Peters) bill that would place a two-year moratorium on accepting new providers from joining the program until further safeguards were put in place to ensure that program funds were being used as intended. The bill would not affect providers currently enrolled in the program, and would seek to preserve the current level of funding.

In short, the bill co-sponsored by Peters does not end the 340B program. Rather, it seeks to ensure the program’s funds are being used to provide medications to low-income patients instead of padding hospital profit margins, contrary to the AHF’s assertions.

“The 340B program is critical to provide low-income patients with access to the life-saving treatments they need,” Peters said in a press statement disputing the ad’s claims. “The cuts made by the Trump administration to the 340B program need to be reversed. Going forward, we also must find ways to make sure the program is viable long-term; part of that is ensuring that hospitals who participate in the program are getting these critical, discounted drugs to the people for whom they are intended.

“Congress needs to ensure the funds are properly allocated, that there is no abuse and the program is being used as intended,” Peters added. “A temporary pause on 340B will not affect hospitals already in the program and will allow for greater data transparency, appropriate oversight and better care for patients.”

It turns out that AHF — and its founder, Michael Weinstein — derives most of its funding from clinics and pharmacies it operates that depend largely on Medicare and Medicaid insurance payments. These are the types of providers that participate in 340B.

Opposing a member of Congress is one thing. But lying about that member’s stated positions in an effort to undermine their standing is quite another, and is something we should never tolerate.

The San Diego area political landscape will experience a significant shakeup come November of 2018. For several months now, there has been massive speculation about the future of Darrell Issa (R-49), the nine-term Republican Congress member who represents northern San Diego County and southern Orange County.

Issa has been a stalwart of Republican partisan politics, making a national name for himself as former chair of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, launching a number of investigations into the Obama administration that cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars but ultimately proved fruitless. During his chairmanship, Issa became the poster boy for Republican partisan excesses.

Speculation as to whether he would survive the 2018 election cycle after winning re-election in 2016 by a mere 1,621 votes, while facing daily protests outside of his Vista office, became unavoidable. Prior to 2016, Issa had never faced a serious threat to his electoral prospects.

That all changed, however, in the “Age of Trump,” with President Trump’s unpopularity potentially dragging down the entire Republican Party, threatening the GOP’s stranglehold on power in Washington, D.C. His expectations for victory in November seemed dimmer than ever.

On Jan. 10, Issa announced he would not run for a 10th term.

“Throughout my service, I worked hard and never lost sight of the people our government is supposed to serve,” Issa announced in a statement. “Yet with the support of my family, I have decided that I will not seek re-election in California’s 49th District.”

A crowded field has formed to replace Issa. Already on the Democratic side, former Marine Col. and JAG attorney Doug Applegate (who nearly beat Issa in 2016); environmental lawyer Mike Levin; real estate investor Paul Kerr; and nonprofit CEO (and granddaughter of Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs) Sara Jacobs; are all jockeying for position.

Now the Republican field is growing, as well, with California Assemblyman from Oceanside Rocky Chavez immediately jumping into the race; followed by California Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey; San Juan Capistrano City Councilmember Brian Maryott; patent lawyer Joshua Schoonover; and recently, San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar.

The fear on both sides is that with California’s top-two primary system, the high number of candidates will dilute the vote to the point where one party will be shut out of the general election. For Democrats, this is a real concern, since Issa’s seat has been seen as a real pick-up opportunity in the quest to retake the majority in the House.

For political junkies, this race will be one of the few of real intrigue this cycle — certainly the highest profile — for San Diego. Stay tuned.

— Andy Cohen is a local freelance writer. Reach him at ac76@sbcglobal.net.

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