During his first substantive committee hearing as a member of Congress on Wednesday, Rep. Josh Harder and the rest of the Committee on Education and Labor focused one of the key issues facing the Central Valley: healthcare protections for those living with pre-existing conditions.
“I just felt thrilled that we were able to make this hearing and this content the first thing we did, because this is the reason I ran,” Harder said during an interview with the Journal on Thursday. “The most important thing to the Central Valley is whether or not everyone can have access to affordable healthcare...you heard it from my campaign a million times, and I think it was such a powerful statement that it wasn’t just me, it was me and hundreds of other people running for Congress across the country which is why this was the very first committee hearing.”
Specifically, Wednesday’s hearing centered on examining the effects of rule changes to safeguards for individuals with pre-existing conditions, the most common of which can include diabetes, asthma, cancer and even acne. According to Harder, 49 percent of non-elderly individuals in District 10 have a condition that qualifies as a pre-existing condition. The passage of the Affordable Care Act under President Barack Obama put a stop to denying these individuals healthcare coverage because of their conditions, but with the ACA under fire from Republicans those protections could be lost.
Education and Labor Committee Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott decided that the first hearing would discuss pre-existing conditions after visiting committee members’ offices and asking them what topics they deemed most important, Harder said.
“These hearings are largely to make sure that we’re putting facts and a human face on the issue, and to that degree I think it was very successful,” he said.
During the hearing, Harder interviewed a witness named Chad Riedy, who was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis in 1984 when he was just three years old. His medical bills have amounted to nearly half a million dollars, Harder said. The topic affects the Congressman personally as well, as his younger brother David was born 10 weeks premature.
“When he needed surgeries as a child for his pre-existing conditions, our health insurance was the only reason my family wasn’t financially ruined,” Harder said during the hearing. “The fact is, people like my brother would be unable to receive or even afford health coverage until their sixties if it weren’t for the ACA. That is why I am thankful you’re all here to discuss this issue.”
During his remarks, Harder went on to point out that over 105,000 people can now afford and receive health coverage thanks to the ACA, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck and would otherwise persist without coverage. Across the country, he added, the ACA also expanded coverage for up to 129 million people with pre-existing conditions.
In an effort to make sure affordable care is accessible, Harder co-sponsored a bill on Thursday introduced by Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas which aims to require the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate prices for drugs covered by the Medicare prescription drug benefit. Supporters of the bill say it challenges the monopoly-pricing business model that the drug industry currently uses in a way that won’t harm access, since other drug companies would be able to come in and manufacture the drug for a better price.
“It sounds insane, like, ‘wait a second, we’ve got a healthcare system where the head of Medicare isn’t allowed to negotiate with drug companies?’ And yet, that’s the system we have,” Harder said. “What we’re trying to do is make sure that we’re kicking off a round of efforts to bring some attention to why it’s so important to make sure healthcare is affordable.”
The efforts come during a reprieve from the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, giving Harder his first real chance to work on legislation since taking office. Congressional negotiators have until Feb. 15 to reach an agreement before a second shutdown is set to commence.
“Right now, we’re pivoting from being completely reactive and fixing unnecessary problems, like the government shutdown, to beginning a proactive agenda,” Harder said. “Right now we have the opportunity to actually move ahead, and this hearing was the beginning of fulfilling one of my core campaign promises.
“It’s a lot better to be focused on fulfilling a campaign promise than focusing on something that you shouldn’t be focused on to begin with, because there’s no reason the government should ever be shut down.”