The House Government Oversight Committee, now chaired by Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland has written letters to a dozen major drug companies asking for information about their drug pricing policies. Democrats are vowing to make lowering drug prices a major goal in the House.
“For years, drug companies have been aggressively increasing prices on existing drugs and setting higher launch prices for new drugs while recording windfall profits,” Cummings said in a statement. “The goals of this investigation are to determine why drug companies are increasing prices so dramatically, how drug companies are using the proceeds, and what steps can be taken to reduce prescription drug prices.”
Meanwhile, Democrats in the House are considering a number of actions to address high drug prices for all consumers as well as ways to lower prices through Medicare and using other government powers. These options include:
-cap out of pocket costs
-negotiate Medicare drug prices
-more generic drugs to market
-use foreign pricing as reference for US prices
-rebuild patent system
-have the government produce some drugs
-import drugs from Canada
The Trump Administration has also made reducing drug prices a priority and Donald Trump suggested that foreign prices could be used as a basis for pricing in this country. He also wants to promote changes in Medicare pricing and approve more generic drugs.
Five Democrats have taken over as chairs of key committees in the House of Representatives. Three will chair powerful committees on budget, foreign policy and judicial issues. Nita Lowey of Westchester is chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee which is the key committee deciding on program funding across all government programs including aging programs of which she has been a major supporter.
Eliot Engel is chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee which will have a role in probing the Trump Administration relationships with Russia and Saudi Arabia and other countries. Jerry Nadler is chair of the powerful Judiciary Committee which would have the role of initiating any impeachment proceedings against Trump.
Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan is chair of the Joint Economic Committee and Nydia Velasquez is chairing the Small Business Committee. She was the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress in 1992.
Nadler and Engel were prominent members of the New York State Assembly for many years. Nadler served from 1977-1992 and Engel from 1977-1992. Nita Lowey worked for Governor Mario Cuomo in several roles before she went to Congress. All of the chairs are considered to be among the more progressive members of the House.
Once again following an election turnover, there are new chairs of the Aging Committees in the state Assembly and Senate. In the Senate, the change was expected since Democrats took power and would appoint one of their members to replace Senator Sue Serino, the previous chair. Senator Rachel May who just won election in the Syracuse area is the new Senate chair. She has been a professor at Stony Brook and worked at Syracuse University in the environmental field most recently .
Assemblyman Harry Bronson is the new Assembly chair, replacing Donna Lupardo who is now chairing the Agriculture Committee. She had been mentioned for the post of Majority Leader which instead went to Crystal Peoples-Stokes of Buffalo. Bronson represents a district in the Rochester area and has been in the Assembly since 2011.
Both Lupardo and Serino were active leaders of the Aging Committee. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of turnover in chairs of the committee who often move up to other committees that are more powerful. There have been some chairs who served for many years like Paul Harenberg in the Assembly who made senior issues his primary concern.
Gustavo Rivera has replaced Kemp Hannon as Chair of the Senate Health Committee as Democrats replace all Republican chairs. Hannon was defeated in November. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried continues as Chair of the Health, a position he has held for decades.
The new Legislature which begins its session now includes 15 new members of the Senate. The Legislature will be much more diverse with more women and persons of different ethnic groups, including the first Indian-American, Iranian-American and Taiwanese-American legislators.
New York’s paid family leave program has entered its second year and continues the phase in of benefits as well as length of time a worker can take the benefit. Starting January 1st, 2019, benefits expanded from 8 to 10 weeks of leave at 55% of wages up to $746.41 per week. The employee contribution goes up to a maximum of $2.08/week, and many workers will pay less than this amount. These benefits will grow and be further phased in until 2021 when they will reach 12 weeks of leave at 67% of wages up to a cap.
The program provides job protection to return to the same or a comparable position. There is also protection against discrimination or retaliation for taking the leave and a continuation of the same health insurance policy for workers taking paid family leave as long as employees continue paying their cost sharing. For more detailed information on how the program works, here is a link to the state’s website https://paidfamilyleave.ny.gov/
I am trying to get some data on the number of persons who used the program in 2018, the first year of operation. It will be interesting to see how many persons used the benefit for caregiving for a sick relative as well as those using it for caring for a newborn and care when a family member went on a military assignment. Paid family leave is also available for parents adopting a child and can be available for “pending” adoption when needs before the adoption require a parent to be out of work.
On Friday night, Governor Cuomo vetoed a bill passed by the Legislature in June that would have added bereavement coverage to the state’s Paid Family Leave law. That law went into effect one year ago on January 1, 2018 after being passed in 2016. The bereavement leave would have allowed employees to access up to 12 weeks of paid leave. Advocates who supported the original bill were opposed the bereavement bill passed because it had no cost estimates and that added costs could drag the entire program down which is paid for by workers through the New York State disability program.
A Better Balance, an organization that led the campaign for Paid Family Leave noted that there is no state or city in the country which has paid bereavement leave paid for by workers. The state of Oregon and the City of Tacoma, Washington have laws that employees can use up to five days of paid sick leave which is paid by employers.
The state’s paid family leave program is being phased in and by 2021 will provide up to 12 weeks of paid time at up to 2/3 of salary to a statewide average for persons caring for a newborn, a seriously ill relative or to care for family members because of military deployment.
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The 2019 New York State legislative session will get underway in less than a month with a major change in the cast of characters including the new Democratic Majority in the Senate. Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins was elected the Majority Leader and she will have a big job trying to set the tone with fifteen new members of the Democrats 40 members. They will be able to move many bills that have been stopped by the Senate Republicans in the last several years. The Majority Leader will have to make key decisions about who will lead various committees. Senator Sue Serino who had been chair of the Aging Committee will be replaced by a Democrat. Long-time Senator Kemp Hannon who chaired the Health Committee for many years was defeated. Senator Gustavo Rivera was the ranking Democrat on that committee but it is unclear if ranking members will all take over to chair their committees.
A big concern for lobbyists and advocates will be the new faces on the Senate staff. There is a big turnover of staff who are the people they have been dealing most on a day to day basis. Many staffpersons who have worked on the Senate majority staff are losing their jobs and Democrats have to quickly hire many new staffpersons for committees and for central staff including budget and finance staffpersons.
Democrats will continue to have the majority the Assembly and there will be just the normal turnover with some new members. Program and budget staffpersons in the Assembly do not know now who all their counterparts will be on the Senate staff who they will need to interact with on a daily basis.
Advocates and lobbyists as well as the media and public are trying to figure out how the Assembly, Senate and Governor Cuomo are going to interact, especially if the two houses stake out more liberal positions than the Governor. Cuomo will be tested to see if he will support many of the reform measures new members and both majorities in the houses want including voting and ethics reforms. Democrats are expected to push for legislation to enact early voting and ending a loophole allowing corporations to donate huge amounts of money. Democrats led by Assembly Health Chair Richard Gottfried will again push hard for a state single payer health system with his NY Health bill.
What is the relationship between artificial intelligence and emotion? That is a big question that is the subject of much discussion in Silicon Valley as big technology companies are on the cusp the next sweeping change in society that could transform everyday life as much as the computer and internet did in the 1980s and 1990s. This subject was also discussed by a group of seniors and professionals in Albany recently following a workshop some had attended at the national meeting of the Village to Village Network in San Diego in October. Presenters there described how robots in the form of pet animals are keeping older people company as well as other robots providing reminders throughout the day to take medications at certain hours and other inquiries. Nursing homes are beginning to use the robots too to assist with some tasks.
Of course, the most recognizable form of artificial intelligence for many persons is the personal assistant such as Alexa from Amazon which answers questions and gets information with a voice command. Robots though can be super Alexas and personal assistants who have the ability to be programmed to do things that humans sometimes can’t do, such as helping an immobile older person in a wheelchair being able to more quickly retrieve something or finding something for a person with limited vision.
The issue of emotion though is one that is getting a lot of attention. In the group discussion in Albany, some were uncomfortable with the idea that a robot would replace human contact. After all, a robot cannot assess a living environment or a person’s full social and service needs. Yet, many older persons who have been using the robot animals became attached to them as they would a pet because the robot was always there and had been programmed to provide conversation.
Many of us want to learn more about this evolving technology and it is probably a good idea in every community to arrange workshops with local health providers and technology companies representatives to discuss issues. We probably should all keep an open mind. We probably are all uncomfortable with the idea that machines will be able to replace humans with many tasks but human contact and human direction remains most important while using technology as an aid not a master.