Attacking Rising Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 7, 2019

The Washington, DC-based AARP timed the release of its latest Rx Price Watch report as the House Energy Commerce Committee marked up and passed a dozen bills just days ago, six that would lower prescription drug costs. The legislative proposals now go to the House floor for consideration.

AARP’s new report, a continuation of a series that has been tracking price changes for widely used prescription drugs since 2004, was circulated to House Committee members before their markup and vote and its findings sent a message to the lawmakers that they hear from their older constituents, that is the costs of pharmaceutical drugs is skyrocketing, making it difficult to fill needed prescriptions.

Poll after poll findings reflect the concerns of seniors about their ability to pay for prescribed medications. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last month, 79 percent of survey respondents view drug prices to be “unreasonable,” while just 17 percent found the costs to be “reasonable.” Twenty-four percent of these respondents found it difficult to pay the costs of their prescription drugs.

Generic Drugs Can Save Dollars

According to the new AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI) report, by Leigh Purvis and Dr. Stephen W. Schondelmeyer, the average annual cost of therapy for one widely used brand-name prescription drug in 2017 was over 18 times higher than the cost of therapy for one generic drug. The cost for a generic medication used on a chronic basis averaged $365 per year. In contrast, the average annual cost for a brand-name prescription drug was $6,798. But, four years earlier the price differential between these same market baskets was substantially smaller ($4,308 verses $751 respectively).

“Generics account for nearly nine out of every 10 prescriptions filled in the U.S. but represent less than a quarter of the country’s drug spending,” said Debra Whitman, Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer at AARP, in a statement released with the PPI’s 28 page report “These results highlight the importance of eliminating anticompetitive behavior by brand-name drug companies so that we get more lower-priced generic drugs on the market,” says Whitman.

AARP’s PPI report, entitled “Trends in Retail Prices of Generic Prescription Drugs Widely Used by Older Americans,” found that retail prices for 390 generic prescription drugs commonly used by older adults, including Medicare beneficiaries, decreased by an average of 9.3 percent in 2017, compared to the general inflation rate of 2.1 percent. The decline follows two consecutive years of substantial generic drug price decreases; the previous two consecutive years saw increases in generic drug prices. All but three of the 390 generic prescription drugs analyzed in AARP’s report had a retail price change in 2017. While prices for 297 (76 percent) drug products decreased, 90 (23 percent) products had price increases.
Six commonly used generic drug products had retail price increases of greater than 70 percent, including a nearly 200 percent increase for sertraline HCL, an antidepressant, finds the AARP.

AARP’s PPI report found that with older adults taking an average of 4.5 prescription drugs every month, those using generic prescription drugs were likely to have an average annual retail cost of $1,642 in 2017.

“The gap between average annual brand-name and generic drug prices has increased dramatically—brand name drug prices were six times higher than generic drug prices in 2013 but more than 18 times higher in 2017,” said Leigh Purvis, Director of Health Services Research, AARP Policy Institute, and co-author of the report. “As long as brand name drug prices continue to skyrocket, the value of prohibiting brand name drug company practices that slow or prevent competition from generic and biosimilar drugs cannot be overstated.”

AARP Pushes for Passage of Bills to Lower Drug Costs

Before the Committee on Energy and Commerce vote on April 3, in correspondence AARP urged Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-Ore) to enact two bills (along with four other proposals) being considered at the morning markup session. These legislative proposals would lower prescription drug costs and had previously been approved by the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee.

In the correspondence, AARP’s Nancy A. LeaMond, Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer, pushed for passage of H.R., 1499. the “Protecting Consumer Access to Generic Drugs Act of 2019.” introduced by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL). This proposal would make it illegal for brand-name and generic drug manufacturers to enter into agreements in which the brand-name drug manufacturer pays the generic manufacturer to keep a generic equivalent off the market. The bill was passed by voice vote.

LeaMond also supported H.R., 965, the “Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples (CREATES) Act of 2019,” introduced by Reps. David Cicilline (D-RI), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Doug Collins (R-GA), Peter Welch (D-VT), and David McKinley (R-WV). The proposal would establish a process by which generic manufacturers could obtain sufficient quantities of brand drug samples for testing thereby deterring gaming of safety protocols that brand manufacturers use to delay or impede generic entry. The bill passed by a bipartisan vote of 51-0.

At the markup, Pallone and Walden were able to work out philosophical differences on H.R. 1499 and H.R. 965. The two lawmakers also hammered out a compromise on H.R. 1503, the “Organize Book Transparency Act of 2019,” that would ensure that the Orange book, which identifies drug products approved on the basis of safety and effectiveness by the Food and Drug Administration, is accurate and up-to-date.

Washington Insiders say that Democratic control of the House will ensure the passage of these legislative proposals on the House floor and the bipartisan vote on the CREATES Act in the lower chamber creates an opportunity for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to successfully push his CREATES Act companion measure in the Senate.

Grassley says the broad, bipartisan action by the House Energy and Commerce Committee to advance the CREATES Act is a major win for consumers. “I look forward to advancing this bill because it will cut down on abuses in the system that keep prices high for patients. I’m also pleased that the committee advanced a bill to address pay-for-delay schemes. Although that bill is not identical to the bill I’ve sponsored in the Senate, the bill’s movement shows that the committee is serious about addressing the pay-for-delay problem,” says the Senator.

As They See It…

AARP’s LeaMond, says “Brand-name drug companies want to stifle generic competition to protect their monopolies and profits. AARP believes that eliminating these deliberate anticompetitive behaviors will result in a more robust generic drug market and greater savings for both patients and taxpayers. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that legislation such as the CREATES Act could save taxpayers more than $3 billion over a decade, and the Federal Trade Commission estimated pay-for-delay deals cost consumers and taxpayers $3.5 billion a year.

“We have long supported the CREATES Act and banning pay-for-delay agreements, and are heartened that Congress is acting to improve access to generic drugs. These bills will promote competition driving down costs for seniors,” says Lisa Swirsky, Senior Policy Analyst, at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“Congressman Cicilline has been a leader in our caucus for putting prescription drug prices at the front of our agenda. Moving generics to market faster is an important step to lower prescription drug costs for every American,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “House Democrats have made it a top priority to lower Americans’ health costs by reducing the price of prescription drugs, and these bipartisan bills show we mean to deliver,” she says.

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Dems Listening to Calls to Strengthen and Expand Social Security, Medicare

Published in the Woonsocket Call on September 23, 2018

The political clock is ticking…The midterm elections are less than 50 days away and just days ago, the Washington, D.C.-based AARP released a poll of age 50 and older Ohio voters who say they are especially concerned about their health care and personal financial issues.

The Politico-AARP poll, conducted by Morning Consult, surveyed 1,592 registered voters in Ohio from September 2 to 11, 2018 with a margin of error of +/- 2 percentage points. For voters 50 and older, the poll surveyed 841 registered voters and has a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points.

Don’t Touch Our Social Security, Medicare”

According to the newly released AARP-Politico poll findings, the older voters identified key issues that will influence how they will cast their vote in November at the polls. The respondents viewed health care (81 percent) the most important campaign issue followed by Social Security (80 percent) and Medicare (76 percent) and prescription drugs (65 percent). But, a strong majority (74 percent) support preserving the state’s Medicaid expansion, says the pollsters. .

“With less than 50 days to go before Election Day, candidates in Ohio would be wise to listen to the state’s most powerful voting group: 50-plus voters,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer in a statement releasing the polls findings. “History shows older voters turn out in force in every election, and AARP is making sure they are energized and know where candidates stand on the issues.”

AARP is partnering with Politico to create a series titled “The Deciders,” (www.politico.com/magazine/thedeciders) that integrates original polling focused on 50-plus voters, reporting, data analysis and cutting-edge data visualization tools built by Politico’s specialized interactive team. The third edition in the series is focused on Ohio, a key election battleground state. Other recent polls surveyed voters in Arizona and Florida.

The AARP-Political Ohio poll findings say that 74 percent of age 50-plus voters “strongly support” (42 percent) or “somewhat support” (32 percent) preserving Ohio’s Medicaid expansion which extended Medicaid eligibility for low-income residents under the Affordable Care Act.

Ninety one percent of the older voter respondents say they are “very concerned” (55 percent) or “somewhat concerned” (36 percent) about their utility bills increasing. In addition, 69 percent of these respondents “strongly support” (27 percent) or “somewhat support” (42 percent) creating an Ohio retirement savings plan.

The AARP-Political poll also noted that 74 percent of 50-plus voters say opioid addiction is “a very serious problem” in the state right now, and 61 percent say the government is not doing enough to address it. And, 70 percent of the older voters “strongly agree” that jobs and the economy are major issues this election season. Only one in five (23 percent) feel “well-prepared” to get and keep a job, says the researchers.

Finally, nearly half (46 percent) of 50-plus voters think government is unprepared to prevent a cyber-attack on public infrastructure.

Democrats Zero in on Senior Issues

While poll after poll of older voters sends the message “Don’t touch my Social Security or Medicare” the GOP turns a deaf ear, but the Democrats listen. Following President Donald Trump’s claim that Democrats are trying to cut Social Security at a campaign rally in Montana, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.), Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) on September 13, announced the bicameral Expand Social Security Caucus, over 150 members, including 18 Senators.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) David Cicilline (D-RI) James Langevin (D-RI) are members of the newly formed Expand Social Security Caucus.

Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works, an advocacy nonprofit group pushing for expanding Social Security, emceed the press conference and co-authored an opinion piece in The Hill celebrating the caucus launch.

Lawson noted, “We have members in the caucus from all corners of the country, from all parts of the Democratic Party. We’re waiting on some Republicans who might join, but they’ll be welcome when they realize that the American people are united in calling for an expansion of Social Security.”

The mission of this new congressional caucus is to push for the expansion of Social Security, one of the most popular and successful government programs. Last year alone, Social Security lifted 22 million Americans, including more than 15 million seniors, out of poverty. Before Social Security, nearly half of the nation’s seniors were living in poverty, says a caucus press release.

The caucus will ensure that expanding Social Security is a key part of the Democratic agenda before the midterm elections and next year and beyond. Over a dozen bills have already been introduced in the Senate and House to expand Social Security. With the caucus now playing a key role in expanding and strengthening Social Security, look for more bills to be introduced next Congress.

At the official unveiling of the new Congressional caucus, Sanders said, “We are here today to say very loudly and very clearly that at a time when millions of seniors are trying to survive on $12,000 or $13,000 a year, our job is not to cut Social Security. Our job is to expand Social Security so that everyone in America can retire with dignity and respect.” T

“Social Security is a lifeline for seniors and Americans with disabilities. We won’t let it be cut by one cent – and instead we will fight to expand it,” Co-chair Warren said. “The rich and powerful have rigged our economy to make themselves richer, while working families face a massive retirement crisis. If this government really works for the people, it should protect and expand Social Security.”

“A number of bills have been introduced in the Senate and House to expand Social Security, including legislation written by Sanders last year to lift the cap on taxable income that goes into Social Security, requiring the wealthiest Americans – those who make over $250,000 a year – to pay their fair share of Social Security taxes. That bill would increase Social Security benefits and extend the program’s solvency for the next 60 years.

Joining the caucus leadership Thursday were Social Security Works, the Alliance for Retired Americans, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Latinos for a Secure Retirement, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the American Federation of Government Employees, the Arc of the United States, the Center for Responsible Lending and Global Policy Solutions.

With the midterm elections looming, the progressive and centralists of the Democratic party must put aside their differences to work together to support Democratic Congressional candidates who can win. One unifying political issue may well be supporting the expansion and strengthening of Social Security, Medicare and ensuring that Americans can be covered by affordable health insurance. Stay tuned.

Time to Change how Social Security Calculates ‘COLA’

Published in Woonsocket Call on October 23, 2016

On Tuesday, September 18, the U.S. Social Security Administration announced that the nation’s 65 million Social Security beneficiaries will be automatically be paid a minuscule 0.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to their monthly checks in 2017. The average monthly Social Security benefit next year will be $1,360, $5 more than now.

According to AARP, 153,349 Rhode Islanders received Social Security checks as of the end of 2014. Also, 22 percent of Rhode Island retirees depend on their Social Security check for 90 percent or more of their income. That’s chump change, not a lot of money for Rhode Island retirees to buy groceries, gas, or even catch up on their bills.

The federal agency detailed other changes that we can expect, too. Beginning in 2017, the amount of your earnings subject to the Social Security tax increases from $118,500 to $127,200. It’s estimated that this tax change impacts about 12 million of the 173 million people who pay into the retirement system.

Next year’s Social Security COLA increase is the smallest in a decade and comes after no increase in 2016 (zero increases also occurred in 2010 and 2011). Seventy percent of Medicare beneficiaries are protected by a hold-harmless rule, which keeps Social Security benefit payments from decreasing because of increased Medicare Part B premiums. However, 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries (including high wage earners, those enrolled in Medicare and not yet receiving Social Security, and newly enrolled in Medicare) could see cost increases in their Medicare Part B premiums that cover their visits to doctors and hospitals. The increased premium costs will be deducted directly from their Social Security check.

Chump Change COLA Won’t Pay Bills

Responding to the federal government’s disappointing COLA announcement, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, whose Washington, DC aging group represents 37 million members, charges in a statement that one major domestic issue ignored by presidential debate moderators and one that demands attention from candidates is the future of Social Security.

“Over the last five years, Social Security COLA’s have remained small or nonexistent at 1,7 percent or lower, even though every cent can matter to beneficiaries and their families. After last year’s zero COLA, this year’s announcement doesn’t offer much help to the millions of families who depend on their Social Security benefits. As prescription prices skyrocket and Medicare premiums and other health costs increase, many older Americans have understandable concerns. Along with many groups, AARP has also asked Congress to ensure that Medicare premiums and deductibles don’t skyrocket next year,” says Jenkins.

Adds Max Richtman, President/CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), “No one can say with a straight face that providing the average senior with an additional four dollars a month will come even close to covering the true cost of living that retirees face. The average senior spends more than $5,000 a year on healthcare costs alone. A $4 Social Security COLA doesn’t even make a dent in covering rising costs for seniors.”

Richtman asserts that next year’s tiny COLA increase only continues the trend of historically low cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. “Over the past eight years, the current COLA formula has led to average increases of just over 1%, with three of those years seeing no increase at all. For the average senior, the 2017 COLA will mean an extra $4.00 per month which would barely cover the average cost of one Lipitor pill, a prescription drug frequently prescribed to seniors,” he says.

Richtman notes, “I’ve asked seniors at town hall meetings around the country how many of them think the COLA represents their true cost of living — laughter is always the response. We should move to a COLA formula that takes a more accurate measure of seniors’ expenses, which is a CPI for the elderly. The CPI-E has been in the experimental phase since 1982. It’s time to finish the job by fully funding the development of a more accurate COLA formula.”

Congress Must Legislatively Fix COLA Formula

In media releases, Rhode Island lawmakers call for tweaking how Social Security calculates Social Security COLAs.

Democratic U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who sits on the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, calls next year’s Social Security COLA increase an “insult.” He says, “For the fifth year in a row, Washington’s outdated formula has resulted in zero or next to zero cost of living adjustment for Social Security benefits. For the fifth year in a row, Rhode Island seniors will have to stretch their budgets to cover the rising cost of the basics, like food, housing, bills, and prescriptions. They didn’t bargain for this when they paid into Social Security over a lifetime of hard work. Congress needs to change the way we calculate Social Security COLAs.”

Adds, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), “This is completely unacceptable. The method for calculating cost of living adjustments is completely broken and fails to reflect the costs of gods and services seniors buy in Rhode Island and across the country.”
The Rhode Island Congressman calls for the Republican House Leadership to seriously consider pending legislation that will ensure that cost of living adjustments reflect the goods and services Rhode Island seniors actually buy. “Speaker Ryan should immediately bring the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act to the floor so we can replace this outdated method for calculating cost of living adjustments with a model that actually meets the needs of Rhode Island seniors,” said Cicilline.

During the last Congress, the Senate and House controlled GOP have consistently kept legislative proposals from being considered that were crafted to bring needed reforms to the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs. A newly elected Democratic President and a Congress controlled by Democrats might just be the political fix necessary to finally do the job that is ensuring the financial long-term solvency of these two domestic entitlement programs

We Need Congress to Step Up and Fix Social Security, Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 3, 2016

Expect the nation’s Social Security program to be fully funded for nearly two decades, and Medicare’s solvency to continue courtesy of health care reforms. Social Security beneficiaries may even get a very small .2 percent cost of living (COLA) adjustment next year but will get wacked with a Medicare premium increase. These facts are reported in the recently leased 262 page report issued by the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare funds, transmitted to Congress and President Obama. This is the 76th report issued by the Trustees that financially reviews these two of the nation’s largest entitlement programs.

This 2016 Trustee Report, released on Jun 22, should be of interest to Rhode Island’s retirees who receive checks from Social Security, According to AARP, 153,349 Rhode Islanders received Social Security checks as of the end of 2014. Also, 22 percent of Rhode Island retirees depend on their Social Security check for 90 percent or more of their income. Their average benefit is $1,341 per month.
The Devils in the Details

The recently released 2016 Trustees Report notes there is now $2.81 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $23 billion more than last year and that it will continue to grow by payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund’s assets.

Meanwhile, Social Security remains well-funded. In 2016, as the economy continues to improve, Social Security’s total income is projected to exceed its expenses. In fact, the Trustees estimate that total annual income will exceed program obligations until 2020.

The Trustees say that Social Security will be able to pay full benefits until the year 2034, the same as projected in last year’s Report. After that, Social Security will still have sufficient revenue to pay about 79% of benefits if no changes are made to the program.

Although the Trustees project a .2% Cost of Living Adjustment increase, retirees will be hit with a premium increase next year. Medicare Part B premiums are projected to increase by only a very small amount for about 70 percent of beneficiaries in 2017 from $104.90 to $107.60. The standard monthly premium is projected to increase from $121.80 to $149.00 while the annual deductible is projected to increase from $166 to $204 for all beneficiaries.

The Trustees peg Medicare solvency to the passage of healthcare reform, with the program paying full benefits until 2028, 11 years later than was projected prior to passage of the Affordable Care Act. However, this is two years earlier than projected in 2015.

Congress Must Step to the Plate

Responding to the Social Security Trustees report, recently released report, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, said, “While the Trustees once again report that the combined Old Age, Survivor and Disability Insurance Trust can pay full retirement, survivor and disability benefits for some time, we know that if no action is taken, benefits could be cut by nearly 25 percent in 2034, and families could lose up to $10,000 per year in benefits.”

“Social Security remains a critical part of the fabric of our lives to protect us from both expected and unexpected challenge,” says Jenkins.

Jenkins calls on Presidential candidates and those running for Congress and the Senate to make a commitment to strengthening Social Security and outline their plans for the fix. “Throughout the 2016 election, we’ll continue to push candidates to take action if elected,” she says.

As to Medicare, Jenkins adds, “This year’s Medicare Trustees report reinforces the recent progress that has been made through greater Medicare savings and lower costs per enrollee. The report also highlights the financial challenges that continue to face the Medicare program, which is projected to provide critical health coverage to 64 million Americans by 2020.”

“A typical senior today has an annual income of just under $25,000 and pays roughly one out of every six dollars of this in out-of-pocket health care costs. The more than 55 million older Americans who today depend on Medicare for guaranteed, affordable health coverage simply cannot afford more than they already pay,” says Jenkins.

The Solution Could Be Simple

Jenkins urges Congress to make simple solutions to bring stability to the nation’s Medicare program. She suggests Congress find ways to reduce high prescription drug costs, improve the nation’s health care outcomes, eliminate unnecessary diagnostic testing, curb excess paperwork, and identify waste and fraud in the program.

Adds, Max Richtman, President/CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, “What’s likely to be missing in headlines about today’s Social Security Trustees Report is that the program remains well-funded with total income, again, projected to exceed expenses. However, in order to head off a benefit cut in 2034 Washington should embrace the growing movement to lift the payroll tax cap and expand benefits for the millions of seniors struggling to get by on an average $1,300 retirement benefit.

The Trustees also project a tiny .2% cost of living adjustment next year yet Medicare premiums will increase in 2017, says Richtman. “Seniors continue to see their modest Social Security benefits eaten away by growing healthcare costs which illustrates, once again, that the current Social Security COLA formula isn’t accurately measuring seniors’ expenses. Congress needs to adopt a fully developed CPI for the elderly (CPI-E) and begin work on the many Social Security expansion bills now languishing in the House and Senate,” he adds.

This [Trustee’s] report reinforces the importance of ensuring that Social Security and Medicare are preserved and guaranteed, especially for working and middle class Rhode Islanders,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) who is a co-sponsor of the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act. “Reasonable measures, such as raising the cap on high-income contributions, should be considered by Congress to extend the solvency of these programs. I will continue to advocate for commonsense legislation that strengthens benefits for working families and ensures the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare,” he says.

RI. Reps Protect Social Security

Like Cicilline, Rep. Jim Langevin and Democratic Senators Jack Reed (D and Sheldon Whitehouse both view Social Security as an earned benefit and the primary source of income to millions of retirees that must be protected. The Rhode Island Congressional Delegation has fought off Republican efforts to privatize Social Security and have supported legislation to strengthen this program and Medicare.

It is very clear to aging advocates and to the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds that the next President and Congress put political differences aside to make legislative fixes to strengthen and ensure the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare.

The Trustees say this very clearly in their report, “Lawmakers have many policy options that would reduce or eliminate the long-term financing shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare. Lawmakers should address these financial challenges as soon as possible. Taking action sooner rather than later will permit consideration of a broader range of solutions and provide more time to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare.”

Political compromise will be the way to hammer out Social Security and Medicare reforms. When the dust is settled after the upcoming November president elections hopefully this message was delivered at the ballet box.

Retooling America’s Manufacturing Sector

Published in Pawtucket Times, February 15, 2013

Over 50 years ago, you could hear the humming of the machines coming from Rhode Island’s factories.  The piercing sound of factory whistles would rip through the surrounding neighborhood, alerting all that a shift was ending and the next would soon begin.  

Weaving cotton into textiles came from mills scattered throughout northern Rhode Island which translated into work opportunities for all.  Traveling from the City of Providence, the CapitalCity to the City of Pawtucket, the birthplace of the nation’s Industrial Revolution, through Central Falls and up through the City of Woonsocket, you will discover that once we were the hub for the manufacturing of fabric for the nation’s second world war effort. For those factories filling three shifts, meant thousands of workers working in these mills, giving them a place to earn an honorable living. Blue collar workers fueled the nation’s economy as they bought homes, automobiles, as well as providing the  resources to send their children to colleges and universities. “Made in America” was a lifestyle and we were proud of it. 

Today, there is silence in many of these mills and for many of them, a new identity as these same factories have been transformed into artist lofts and studios or renovated for condo living.    For those factories still in operation, many of these manufacturers have decreased the number of shifts, thus reducing their workforce and ultimately impacting many of the local small businesses, leading to closures because of lack of customers.  Simply put, it’s the domino affect and the last piece might fall without Congressional action.   

Manufacturing Goes Over Seas

Over this decade, America’s manufacturing sector has crumbled giving way to China and third world countries to pick up the ball.  Drastically lower wages enable Chinese manufacturers to make cheaper goods sold to consumers for less then it would cost for the items to be made by an American-based manufacturing company. Along with lower wages, Chinese manufacturers face less environmental and safety regulations, taxes and have subsidized operational costs.  Imbalanced trade agreements are not favorable to American manufacturers who are losing the “economic race”, thus resulting in a loss of profits and employee lay offs.  Many of the nation’s manufacturers are being forced out of business, permanently closing their doors in cities and towns throughout this nation.       

A shopping trip always leaves me very unsettled about the flood of cheap imported productions into our nation.  Lower price tags on goods made outside of this country are enticing, but how often is quality been sacrificed for price?  We’ve  become a country of ‘mediocraty’ where its “good enough”.  Imported products ultimately impacts America’s children, who are now less likely to experience the prosperity that their parents once achieved because of the country’s manufacturing economy, which has now begun to falter and tilt to a service economy.     

Shelves of big box stores are packed with electronics and appliances, with most of these items stamped “Made in China.” Your local department store filled with discount bins and clothing racks are certainly not immune from this labeling.  The next time you are shopping, examine the country of origin for that product you are holding.  You guessed it, clothing, dishes, pots and pans, picture frames, all made from Chinese manufacturing companies. 

 Manufacturing Plants Sitting Idle

 As America’s manufacturing sector is decimated by the Chinese along with our communities losing higher paying manufacturing jobs, only lower paying service sector jobs will become available to low and middle income Americans. US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011 Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages show that the average Rhode Island manufacturing job pays $50,823 annually and that there are currently 40,341 employees directly related to manufacturing. Six years ago, over 52,000 Rhode Islanders worked in the manufacturing sector.

Currently, cities and towns now see manufacturing plants sitting idle and empty or underutilized, often times reducing their tax base. This continued trend will not allow for a balanced economy.  Rhode Island can ill afford to lose its existing manufacturing base, ultimately thousands of people to the state’s unemployment statistics.

 

 Once upon a time, “Made in America” stamped on products gave the buyer an assurance of quality.  Government recalls protected our citizens from products that might harm or kill.  As we are increasingly aware, “Made in China” does not always ensure quality (such as pharmaceuticals, tooth paste and defective tires) because of poor Chinese governmental oversight.  In 2007, newspapers reported that some exported toys “Made in China” were produced with high levels of lead paint, being sent to tens of thousands of toy stores throughout the nation, putting our nation’s children at risk. At this time, even lack of product quality control even allowed poisoned pet food manufactured by Chinese companies to be shipped to America, killing thousands of cats and dogs.   

 Resuscitating the Nation’s Manufacturing Sector

With the kickoff of the 113th Congressional Session last month, it is crucial that the Democratic and Republican politicians thoroughly debate this nation’s trade policies and come up with viable bipartisan solutions to reenergizing America’s manufacturing sector.

Most importantly, what steps will President Barrack H. Obama working with a divided Congress take to ensure that American well-paying jobs do not vanish in the global economy?   On Tuesday evening, the President, addressing a joint session of Congress, gave us some clues in his State of the Union speech about retooling America’s manufacturing sector. 

Although the President touched on immigration reform and border security, early child education, clean energy technologies, the war in Afghanistan, and confronting gun violence, he called for fixing the nation’s aging infrastructure, along with launching manufacturing hubs, where businesses partner with the Department of Defense and Energy, to create high tech-jobs.  He looked to Congress to create a network of 15 of these hubs to “guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is “Made in America.”   If Congress blocks this economic initiative the defiant President plans to use executive orders to create three hubs on his own.

Meanwhile, redesigning the nation’s high schools to enable graduates to meet the demands of a high-tech economy can only help manufacturing companies, the noted President Obama.  Schools would be rewarded to develop partnerships with colleges and employers to create classes that teach science, technology, engineering and math skills needed by the nation’s manufacturing sector, he said.

In the Ocean State, as part of his ongoing work to jump start Rhode Island’s economy back, U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI)  at North East Knitting Company in Pawtucket, unveiled another version of his Make It In America Manufacturing Act to target federal investment in manufacturing, helping create jobs, generate public-private partnerships, and support small business growth. (This legislative proposal is similar to one that he introduced two years ago.)

“When they’re competing on a level playing field, American workers outperform competitors across the world,” said Cicilline. Noting that Rhode Island’s economy was built on the strength of its manufacturing industry, the Congressman who represents the 1st Congressional District, tapping into feedback from his Ocean State constituents and the Brookings Institution, crafted the legislative proposal to give manufacturer the resources needed to compete successfully, grow jobs, and get the state and national economy moving again.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), has introduced the companion measure in the Senate.  If signed into law, Cicilline’s Make It In America Manufacturing Act would create a competitive incentive grant program, jointly administered through the Departments of Labor and Commerce. States or regional partnerships may apply for the program, and successful applicants will receive grant funds to help implement innovative Manufacturing Enhancement Strategies. 

Meanwhile, funds can be used to create a revolving loan fund, to issue low interest loans to manufacturers, or to provide grants to non-profits, including community colleges, helping manufacturers to address the skills gap that hinders growth in the manufacturing sector.  The loan funds could also be used to increase exports and domestic supply chain opportunities, improve energy efficiency.  Also, the loans could be used to retool and expand existing manufacturing facilities to compete in the 21st century economy.

Seeking a Bipartisan Compromise

The clocks cannot be turned back.  The global economy is here to stay.  Clearly, Congressional gridlock must end by federal lawmakers seeking legislative solutions to making the nation’s manufacturing sector more competitive in a global economy.  Democratic and GOP lawmakers must hammer out bipartisan solutions to enable the nation’s manufacturing companies to fairly compete worldwide and to ensure that trade polices are balanced and fair for all.  

Many of President Obama’s repackaged proposals (reintroduced in his hour long State of the Union speech) and even Cicilline’s manufacturing proposal were derailed in the last Congress in a Republican-controlled House, where GOP Tea Party members practiced anti-compromise politics.  It becomes crucial for the President’s legislative agenda along with Cicilline’s Make It In America Manufacturing Act, to not be bottled up in the House but truly debated.

With the dust settling from November’s elections, the America public has sent both the President and Congress a strong, clear message that is: work together to fix the nation’s sagging economy. Do the people’s work and leave your political bickering outside the House and Senate Chambers.  Compromise and keep manufacturing in America.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a freelance writer covering aging, health care and medical, even business issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com

 

           

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Defining Brendan Doherty: Romney Republican or Moderate

 Published September 28, 2012, Pawtucket Times

            With the upcoming November election just six weeks away, Republican Candidate Brendan Doherty held a news conference last Tuesday at Memorial, attempting to distance himself from House GOP leadership and from Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s anointed Presidential candidate.

Surrounded by a backdrop of the 294 bed CommunityHospital in Pawtucket’s East Riverview Neighborhood, Doherty, the GOP challenger to Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, came before seniors and supporters to do political damage control, with an agenda to set the public record straight about his positions on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Keeping Social Security, Medicare off the Chopping Block

Charging that Cicilline was misleading to voters on his positions on the nation’s most popular domestic programs, the Republican Candidate pledged his opposition to “privatization” of the nation’s Social Security Program, calling for Congress to keep the Social Security and Medicare programs off the budgetary chopping block.  The former state police superintendent, looking to become Rhode Island’s newest Congressman for the First Congressional District, also supported increased benefits for seniors already enrolled in the Social Security Program.

At the morning news conference, Doherty warned that he has no “secret plan” to cut Social Security and Medicare, as Cicilline charges.  He chastised the Freshman Congressman and his Democratic political operatives for using scare tactics and misleading political rhetoric to fuel a misinformation campaign to link him to Republican Presidential Candidate, Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan’s support for a Medicare voucher program.  Doherty stated that a voucher system would shift healthier Americans to private insurance plans and leave the sickest and frailest American’s in a weakened version of traditional Medicare.

Putting the Spot Light on Fraud and Waste

Doherty, calling himself an “independent thinker” a “centrist” who pledged to reach across the aisle to House Democrats, to pass legislation that would root out fraud and abuse in Medicare and Medicaid.  He noted that a new RAND Corporation study showed that fraud and waste in these two programs may be as high as $98 billion.

“While Congressman Cicilline often speaks of his commitment to protect Medicare from any possibility of budget cuts, he failed to take this common sense action to address the fraud, waste and abuse that accounts for at least $48 billion being diverted every year from the Medicare program and taken away from our seniors who depend on the Medicare program,” commented Doherty.

Doherty, however, looks to push for the Medicare and Medicaid Fighting Fraud and Abuse to Save Taxpayers’ Dollars Act or the Medicare Fast Act (H.R. 3399), as types of legislative proposals he could support if he were elected to Congress.

Cicilline did not mince his words after Doherty’s news conference by continuing to tie his Republican challenger to the Radical Republicans who control the House.  He charged that “My Republican opponent supports raising the retirement age for Social Security and if he got to Congress, would vote to keep the Republicans in control of the House where they would continue to push an extreme agenda that would end the guarantee of Medicare and turn it into a voucher system.”

According to the Democratic Congressman, the Preserving Our Promise to Seniors Act, whish he is a cosponsor, is the best way to extend the life of Social Security Program along with improving the Cost of Living Adjustment formula to give beneficiaries an adjustment based on the cost of goods and services that they regularly purchased.  The Democratic Congressman also opposed the raising the Social Security eligibility age or any effort to privatize the system, these changes supported by many GOP lawmakers.

Responding to the news conference, the Rhode Island Democratic Party issued a release calling Doherty’s pledge to preserve Social Security and Medicare “an empty one,” given the Republican House Leaderships efforts to slash funding for these programs for years.

Countering Doherty’s attempt to label himself a moderate, Bill Fischer, spokesperson for the RI Democratic Party called Cicilline’s Republican opponent a “Romney Republican who has clearly stated he would repeal the Affordable Care Act; raise the eligibility age on Social Security; and will vote for Republican control in Congress.”

“If Doherty were serious about protecting seniors, he wouldn’t be calling for the repeal of our historic healthcare reform,” Fischer said. “Maybe he doesn’t understand the enormous benefits Rhode Island seniors have already received since its passage. Thanks to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, 128,390 people on Medicare in Rhode Island have access to preventative health care services, such as colonoscopies and mammograms.

In Rhode Island’s First Congressional District alone, 7,300 seniors have saved over $4 million on prescription drugs because the Affordable Care Act closed the donut hole.”

TV Spot Ties Doherty to Radical Republicans

             With Doherty’s effort to distance himself from the Washington Republican agenda, Cicilline’s campaign released a new television spot, entitled “Fantastic,” to more firmly politically tie his Republican challenger to the Romney-Ryan agenda in Washington.

“At the end of the day, Brendan Doherty wants Republicans in control of Congress and Mitt Romney setting the agenda in the White House. In fact, he thinks Romney would “be fantastic for Rhode Island,’” said Cicilline campaign manager Eric Hyers, detailing the spot..

“Rhode Islanders will have a clear choice this November between re-electing President Obama and Congressman Cicilline so we can get our state back on the right track, or voting for Mitt Romney, Brendan Doherty, and the Washington Republicans who got us into this mess to begin with.”

In the 30 second spot, Doherty emphasizes his support for Romney at a March 3, 2012 candidate forum, saying, “I think he’d be fantastic for Rhode Island.”

In January 2012, Doherty formally endorsed Romney for President, describing him as a “proven leader.”  In the same month, Doherty traveled to New Hampshire to campaign for Romney and was later introduced to the Republican presidential nominee by former Rhode Island Governor Don Carcieri.

The political spot also outlines areas where Romney and Doherty agree on policy – including their support for repealing President Obama’s historic health care reform law, as well as their mutual opposition to reproductive freedoms for women and the Buffett Rule that would require millionaires to pay at least the same tax rate as the middle class.

As the Dust Settles…

Here are questions that voters in Congressional District 1 must ask themselves before they enter the polls in the November election:

Can Doherty successfully repackage himself as a moderate Republican?  If so, with a Republican-controlled House, captured by a radical Tea Party who philosophically opposes political compromise, as a moderate Republican will he vote for  Democratic initiatives that the majority of his Democratic constituents support.  Or can he stand the “heat in the kitchen” and vote against his House Republican leadership.

Can the voters forgive the former Providence Mayor, now their Congressman, for his statements made about the fiscal health of his City as he left office?  If so, they must determine if it is more important to keep this seat Democratic, in hopes of bringing the political party back to power in that Chamber.

With the November election looming, the Cicilline-Doherty political battle, truly becomes the classic “He said, She said,” debate, with the voters ultimately finding out the truth in the New Congress.

Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.