‘The process is broken’: Welch talks healthcare and Congress at Rotary

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Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) discusses healthcare at the Essex Rotary July 5. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

A simple regimen helps Peter Welch survive as Vermont’s lone congressman: exercise and bourbon, he joked. So far, he’s doing more of the former.

“But I’m getting nervous,” Welch said.

Home during a weeklong break, Welch stopped by the Essex Rotary to offer a glimpse into what he calls a Congress that’s lost its way, where lawmakers recently hatched one of this decade’s most hyped bills in secret and approval ratings over 30 percent are in a seven-year drought.

Perhaps that’s why the most common questions he fields from Vermonters these days aren’t about the president or North Korea or even healthcare.

“It’s, ‘Peter, why don’t you guys get together and get something done?'” he said.

Maintaining a functional Congress is now one of Washington’s biggest challenges, he said, prompting an “immense” amount of his energy aimed at building relationships across the aisle.

He offered the battle over healthcare as an unfortunate gauge. The rollout for the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, involved 14 months of hearings brimming with testimony from healthcare professionals, Welch said, leading to a slew of changes before the vote.

He compared that to Republicans’ efforts to repeal the law with the American Health Care Act, which he first saw in March during a marathon 27-hour hearing where no witnesses testified.

Republican leaders pulled the bill from the House floor in March before passing a restructured version in May. That bill would make major cuts to Medicaid and repeal taxes on the highest-income Americans, Welch said, forcing many who currently work full-time jobs to lose insurance.

The Senate since released its own plan that, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, would reduce the deficit by billions over 10 years while leaving leave 22 million more people uninsured.

Last week, many Republican lawmakers faced backlash in  town halls in their home states for supporting the bill. GOP party leadership released it late last month after hashing it out behind closed doors.

“The process is broken down,” Welch said. “We have to have a much more open and honest discussion and give the public and members of the Congress the opportunity to review and kick the tires on any proposed legislation.”

Doing so requires departure from the comfort of one’s party in search of common ground, Welch said. For him, that means bringing a “Vermont way of doing business” to Washington and understanding that in public policy, listening is often more important than talking.

What better place to start than healthcare, he said.

Welch believes lawmakers need to stop debating over the subsidy equations and instead address the overall cost of healthcare, starting with the pharmaceutical industry.

Earlier this year, data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed nearly 10 percent of American adults don’t take their medications because they can’t afford to.

Welch pointed to EpiPens, which are sold for over $600 a box despite each device containing only about $1 worth of epinephrine.

“They’re just unbelievable how expensive they are,” Welch said. “And nobody has any control.”

Welch said the problem was summed up in a letter by a Vermont mother whose son requires the medicine: “I have to choose between purchasing something I can’t afford or taking a loss I can’t endure,” she wrote.

The U.S. is the only country in the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that doesn’t regulate drug prices, according to a paper published in March by the American College of Physicians.

That group called on the U.S. government to take measures to halt bulging costs and recommended more rigorous price transparency standards.

“My frustration, frankly, is that this is a place where Republicans and Democrats need to get on the same page,” Welch said. “Whatever your theory is, and whoever the payer is … there’s a place of commonality here.”

Yet amid Washington’s dysfunction, Welch finds inspiration in the way Vermonters have “filled the vacuum” with local discourse.

He said that’s why he feels lucky to be Vermont’s representative; when constituents learn he’s working with a Republican on a bill, they don’t say he’s selling out, he said. Rather, they’re reassured.

In the same vein, he encouraged people to lead by example in their own spheres of influence. The strength of local institutions and the spirit of democracy depends on it, he said, and can’t whither “just because you’re discouraged with how things are going.”

Welch said the same applies for every lawmaker in Washington, himself included.

“We don’t pick the times we’re in. We just decide whether we’re going to engage and do the best we can in those times,” he said.