Prior to a busy week that included Congressional hearings on the Toyota recall and Anthem Blue Cross rate hikes, Representative Henry Waxman, 30th District, visited the office of the Park LaBrea News and Beverly Press on Thursday, February 18. We interviewed Mr. Waxman about those upcoming hearings and asked him about healthcare reform, a timely issue in light of President Barack Obama’s bipartisan healthcare summit held today in Washington. We also asked Waxman to talk about his accomplishments as a Congressman. Currently Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Waxman has been in Congress for more than three decades. From 1979 to 1994, he chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, and served as the subcommittee’s ranking member in 1995 and 1996. Over the years, he has fought for universal health insurance, tobacco regulation, affordable prescription drugs and many more issues impacting healthcare. He has authored bills that resulted in funding for AIDS treatment, the manufacturing of medications for people with rare illnesses and improvements to prescription drugs in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. His visit to the Park Labrea News and Beverly Press was a reminder that our representative in the House remains a vital presence both in Washington and in our own backyard.
You have been vociferous in saying that something more is going on than sticky gas pedals and poorly designed floor mats in the Toyota recalls. What do you want to bring to light in the committee hearing on February 24?
We want to know what Toyota knew, when they knew it, and what they did about it. We also want to know when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found out about these problems and what they did about it. It could be that we need new legislation because cars are a lot different than when the original law was adopted under which NHTSA first started operating. Cars are a lot more complicated with computers, and electronics, so we need to know if the laws are up to date on that. With Toyota, their first statement was that it was the mats in the car. Then they said it was also a sticky gas pedal. But while they were saying that publicly, my staff was interviewing people from Toyota and they told us that they thought there was something more there. They didn’t tell us what that something was, but the recall was supposed to be just for those two things, so we want to hear a lot more about this. We have gotten a lot of documents from Toyota and we will use those documents to drill down and get the facts.
Your committee has recently found inconsistencies with what Anthem Blue Cross is telling the public about their recent proposed rate hikes and what the company’s documentation shows. Anthem said individual plan enrollment was down, but your office found documentation that indicated enrollment was up by 7%. Is it possible to get WellPoint executives to explain the discrepancy during the committee hearing?
There are a lot of questions I have about this. Why this kind of price hike? Why on only some of their insured people and not others? Were they trying to get people to drop policies that were more generous and sign up for lower-cost policies that were less generous and required them to take more money out-of-pocket? This whole issue illustrates why we need federal law to change the way insurance practices are handled, especially in this individual insurance market. If you have an individual plan, you have no bargaining power, you have to do what they say, and the biggest problem with the individual insurance market is that the insurance companies are trying to avoid insuring you if you get sick. So some of these companies, when people get sick, are trying to rescind the policies that they had issued. There were a number of people in California particularly, who paid their insurance policy, got sick and then the insurance company said ‘you didn’t give us the exact right answer on a question in the application.” If they were happy with the application, they should have questioned it then and there, not rescind a policy when someone needs it the most. Individual insurance companies are trying to avoid the cost by avoiding people that could cost them money.
You have been fighting for healthcare reform for decades. When are we going to get a healthcare reform bill?
We need to make insurance fair and affordable with good quality care. It is going to have to happen fairly soon, because the only way it can happen now that we can’t get 60 votes in the Senate, it comes down to a situation where we have a bill that did pass the Senate with 60 votes. The House now has to pass it and make changes in it, but we can’t change it and then send it back to the Senate because then it has to be voted on by 60 votes. We were close to reaching a complete agreement, one in which the Senate passed the bill by 60 votes, and that was the week before the Massachusetts Senate election. Once we lost that seat, it meant that we can’t get 60 votes in the Senate. But there is a process called reconciliation, by which we can pass a bill by majority in the Senate. Republicans are saying this is so unfair that we would use this esoteric procedure, but it is a procedure that has been used for years. They passed welfare reform by using reconciliation, they passed the big tax cuts for upper incomes by using reconciliation…it allows the majority to work its will. It is a little complicated and it is not coming together easily, but I am convinced that we will get there by April. People think the bill is dead, which is a mistake. It is a difficult situation that we are in, but there is a way to get it through and I think that most of us are determined to do that.
Smoking laws have become stricter in Los Angeles, particularly with the ban on restaurant patio smoking just passed by the Los Angeles City Council. You have done a lot of work around the issue of smoking, warning labels and questioning big tobacco on the addictive nature of nicotine. Do you think smoking will ever become an issue of the past?
There are three approaches that I think are causing a real decrease in smoking. The first one is that people can’t smoke in public places because we have come to a decision in this country that non-smokers should not be forced to breathe in someone else’s smoke. Smoking is not as convenient as it once was. Secondly, with the FDA regulations, there is less of a targeting of kids. If we can postpone people’s decision to smoke until they are adults, most adults are less likely to make that choice. But kids decide to smoke and it is harder for them to quit because they become more addicted physiologically. The third thing is that when we began to reform warning labels and had hearings around the issue, people really began to see how the executives distorted the truth and were doing such hideous things to get kids to smoke and ignoring the harm that it did. People really began to see that smoking was so harmful and that the people behind it were so cynical, they began to turn away from it.
As Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, you held hearings on the use of performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball. Do you think the problem has improved or worsened since then?
In some ways it is more under control now because Major League Baseball is responding to the pressure. They are testing players and holding them accountable. When it comes out that a player has used drugs, it is not a mark of honor. A lot of players that would have otherwise been in the baseball hall of fame will never get in because of drugs. I think we have turned the corner on the time when baseball was so impacted by steroids that the game was not on the level. It is no longer easy to use these drugs, the culture of the clubhouse has changed, so that the culture of drugs does not get passed down to the high school locker rooms…my concern was always a public health issue. Kids look to these athletes and think it’s okay to cheat and maybe they have to use steroids; I think that is changing.
You have an upcoming hearing on radiation overdoses. Will that include questions about CT scan machines in light of the recent overdoses at Cedars-Sinai and other hospitals?
A lot of these hospitals didn’t realize that these machines were emitting excessive radiation. We need to find out if this is being corrected. Someone asked me if I would call officials from Cedars-Sinai, which is in my district, to testify at a hearing. Even though I think Cedars is a wonderful institution for my district, I would have no problem calling them to testify – they should be held accountable just like anybody else.
As Congressman Waxman prepared to leave, publisher Michael Villalpando asked him to sign a copy of “The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works”. He penned the following salutation: “Thank you for your service and commitment to providing important news and information to the community.”
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.