Congressional Retirements Will Change U.S. Healthcare Policy

January 31, 2014


Waxman Retirement Signals the End of an Era

More than 30 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have announced plans to retire at the end of the current term with many citing the gridlock and hyper-partisanship of recent years as a primary reason. While a dozen or so are leaving to run for higher offices, 17 (and counting) are walking away from political office altogether. This week, one more name was added to that list and the implications for U.S. domestic health policy could be significant.

Henry Waxman, a Democrat, has represented one of the most liberal districts in the country. His legendary career included confrontations with some of the biggest companies and industries in America. He was both feared and respected but nobody doubted his effectiveness as a legislator. He’s among the last of a disappearing generation of lawmakers who did not let their partisanship get in the way of legislative accomplishment.

Waxman will leave an enormous imprint on healthcare, including the enactment of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) in 2010. In the 1980s, he fought to defeat efforts to replace Medicaid with a block grant program to states, often clashing with President Ronald Reagan and his Administration. He would later lead successful efforts to expand Medicaid to cover more children and pregnant women living just above the poverty line, and the Affordable Care Act extended coverage to single adults in that same situation.

But Waxman may be remembered most for his leadership on the American response to HIV/AIDS. It’s hard to remember that when the epidemic began in the early 1980s the initial response by the U.S. government was a mixture of apathy and fear. Legislation was introduced calling for quarantining those who were HIV-positive or excluding those who were infected from working in restaurants and schools. Waxman pressed Congress to amp up funding for research, prevention, and, eventually, treatment. He reached across the aisle to staunch Republicans like Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and convinced Congress to pass and Reagan to sign the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act in 1990, providing money to pay for life-prolonging drugs and other treatment to those without insurance.

Waxman and Hatch would go on to co-author a number of health laws including a deal to extend patents for new drugs to 17 years while easing approval of generic versions once drugs came off patent. The two lawmakers joined together so often they were known as Congress’ Odd Couple. But that kind of bipartisan work on healthcare legislation has waned on Capitol Hill today and Waxman attributed his decision to retire, in part, to the squabbling that dominates the political scene. It could be some time before the kind of dealmaking he was known for will be possible again.

Leaving His Mark
Following is a list of some of the major healthcare laws authored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) during his 40 years in Congress:

  • Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. Waxman’s fingerprints are all over Obamacare and especially evident in the expansion of Medicaid eligibility to single adults with income up to 133 percent of the federal poverty line.
  • Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009. After a decade of Waxman-led hearings about the dangers of smoking and the actions of tobacco companies to conceal information about the health risks, Waxman pushed through legislation giving the FDA the power to regulate tobacco products.
  • Ryan White CARE Act of 1990. Working with Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Waxman pushed through comprehensive legislation providing funding for treatment of HIV. Today, Ryan White Act funds pay for life-saving drugs for millions of people living with HIV.
  • Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. You know those ubiquitous labels on food products telling us about calories, fat, fiber, sodium, and other contents? Waxman co-authored that legislation, too.
  • Patent Term Restoration and Drug Competition Act of 1984. A classic Washington deal. Waxman wanted to encourage development of generic drugs and Hatch wanted to extend the number of years drug patents lasted. The final legislation did both.
  • Orphan Drug Act of 1983. Development of drugs to treat rare diseases wasn’t cost effective. The law provided tax breaks to companies to pay for research and help recoup those costs and providing care to countless people living with those diseases.
  • Children Health Insurance Program (CHIP) of 1997. After the defeat of the Clinton health reform plan in 1994, Waxman again teamed with Hatch to write a more limited law aimed at providing insurance to kids up to age 19. Today, 7 million children are insured through this program.