U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) recently sat down with the Huntsville Business Journal and discussed issues important to our state and nation. This is the second installment of five reports from the interview. Today’s topic is health care.
HBJ: What can you tell us about health care in Alabama?
Sen. Jones: Health care has been one of the priorities in our office for a lot of reasons.
Alabama is still a poor state and we’re an unhealthy state. We need better health care outcomes and we’ve got to keep health care in rural parts of Alabama.
We’ve lost 13 or so hospitals in the last seven to eight years, and about seven or eight of those hospitals have been in rural areas. And you’re not going to keep a community if you don’t have health care in that area.
We’ve done a number of things.
First of all, I’ve worked with Sen. (Richard) Shelby (R-Ala.) and Congresswoman (Terri) Sewell (D-Ala.) to get the Centers for Medicare Medicaid Services (CMS) folks to meet with us to try to change the Medicare Wage Index (MWI). The Wage Index is how reimbursements for Medicare and Medicaid services are paid.
Alabama’s had the lowest reimbursement rate in the country. The index formula was such that you stayed at the bottom; once you got there, you couldn’t pull back up.
We brought the CMS director in and talked to her about that.
For years, people would write letters and talk about it a little bit, but we actually put it into action. The director changed that and now Alabama’s wage index has been increased significantly; it will bring about $40 million to $50 million in for health care in Alabama.
HBJ: What about Medicaid Expansion?
Sen. Jones: I have been a strong proponent of Medicaid expansion in Alabama. We made a huge mistake by not doing it.
We didn’t do it in Alabama for two reasons, one reason was purely political. There was also a concern at the time about how we would pay for it.
The Affordable Care Act had the name “ObamaCare” attached to it. Everybody in Montgomery would run around saying that “we can’t do anything, that’s got President Obama’s name on it.”
The people who suffered most were the people who needed the Medicaid insurance. Anecdotally, we have seen all the states that did the Medicaid expansion bring in billions of dollars to the states’ economies.
So, the people of Alabama also suffered because they didn’t have billions of dollars coming in.
Health care outcomes have gone up which also helps the states’ economy. It helps businesses, it helps education and you name it, across the board.
I’ve got a bill pending called the States Achieving Medicaid Expansion (SAME) Act that would give the 16 states who have not expanded an opportunity to get a “second bite of the apple.”
I think the House of Representatives will likely pass it this year, whether it will be part of (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell’s “graveyard,” I don’t know. We’ve got close to 400 bills that the House has passed that are stacking up on Mitch’s desk.
He relishes in being called the “Grim Reaper,” and that’s unfortunate.
HBJ: What about prescription drugs?
Sen. Jones: The other thing that we’ve been looking at with the administration in a bipartisan way, is to lower prescription drug prices.
It’s a big deal. Drug prices are an issue for us.
There are several other things that are out there, such as more transparency in drug pricing; getting generics to market faster.
The thing that’s not in the president’s budget is giving Medicare an opportunity to negotiate drug prices. I’m not sure why the president is opposed to that, but he is.
HBJ: Let’s talk about maternal and infant health.
Sen. Jones: We’ve got a number of bills pending that will try to address maternal health and infant health.
It’s a huge problem in this state. We’ve gotten a little bit better on infant mortality, but we’re still one of the highest in infant mortality in the country; we’re one of the highest in maternal mortality.
A state that prides itself on family values, a pro-life state, we have high rates of that, and that’s unconscionable.
(Tomorrow: Sen. Jones discusses international trade and tariffs)