Earlier this summer, I was disappointed that Congress and the White House failed to come together — in a bipartisan fashion — to shore up the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
Republicans have spent nearly the last decade decrying that Democrats originally passed Obamacare without their input. A valid concern, for sure. But Republicans just tried to do the same thing — only they failed. In my view, that failure was tied to their unwillingness to work across the aisle to produce legislation that would have improved the lives of millions of Americans. By making peoples’ lives better, there would have been more political support for their efforts from both Democrats and Republicans.
As the nation tries to figure out how to move forward, both Congress and the White House are again looking at other laws and policies impacting health care like the 340B Discount Drug program. Now, lawmakers are considering changing the rules around a program that is absolutely critical for many rural hospitals across the nation, including those in Southern Illinois. The 340B program, helps hospitals to provide access to critical medicines for low-income individuals. Without 340B program, many Americans would risk losing access to drugs for important illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and dementia.
Across Illinois’ 15th Congressional District, which covers a large portion of southern Illinois and is currently represented by John Shimkus, there are close to 20 hospitals that rely on the 340B program. This includes Ferrell Hospital in my hometown of Eldorado. Across the entire state, more than 50 hospitals rely on the 340B program, as it is critical in many urban settings as well, where they treat high numbers of low-income patients.
To be fair, and to present both sides of the argument, opponents of the 340B program assert that it raises drug prices in the United States. Their position is that in order to make up for losses they take in the 340B program, that drug makers are forced to raise their prices on their other products, or the same product sold to patients with insurance. There may be some truth to this, however I believe the pharmaceutical companies have a moral obligation to ensure that everyone can have access to their life-saving treatments.
If drug makers around the nation were going out of business, I would reassess my opinion of the 340B program. But the fact is, many drug companies are making massive or even record profits. Alternatively, according to a recent report by the National Rural Healthcare Association, more than 70 rural hospitals have closed in America since 2010, and another 700 are at risk of closing.
To me, it is pretty clear that we must prioritize the 340B program without severely affecting the profit levels of the drug companies.
As the former Chairman of the Healthcare Committee in the Illinois House of Representatives, I know firsthand just how difficult it is to legislate on health care. In fact, I worked with then State Sen. Barack Obama on an important healthcare bill. We were successful because we both understood that rural and urban poor needed access to medical care — and providing that healthcare improved lives and strengthened communities. It is my hope that decision makers in Washington will follow that ideal, and ensure that the 340B program remains viable. Our rural hospitals are depending on it.
David Phelps served in the Illinois House of Representatives from 1984 to 1998, and represented portions of Southern Illinois in the United States Congress from 1998 to 2002.