By choosing Frank Pallone Jr. to be ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee for the 114th Congress, House Democrats tapped a lawmaker with a track record for helping some of the poorest Americans gain access to medical care.
The veteran New Jersey lawmaker on Wednesday narrowly defeated Anna G. Eshoo of California, 100-90, to succeed Henry A. Waxman of California in a post that oversees a broad swath of health policy, from drug and medical device approvals to oversight of the implementation of the health care overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).
Pallone will play a prominent role fighting further bids to repeal or weaken parts of the law. As the top Democrat on Energy and Commerce’s Health Subcommittee, Pallone helped pass the overhaul, as well as legislation affecting the federal-state medical insurance program for children living in or near poverty. He also has been an advocate for boosting funding for the Indian Health Service.
“Frank Pallone played a key role in writing the Affordable Care Act, and I know he will be a tireless fighter against Republican efforts to repeal the patient protections and health care benefits that Americans are already receiving,” said Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., in a statement.
Hoyer was a prominent backer of Pallone in the contest against Eshoo, who had the active support of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and many leaders in the tech community, including Oracle Corp. Chief Executive Safra Catz and the company’s co-founder Larry Ellison.
As top Democrat on Energy and Commerce’s Health Subcommittee, Pallone has shepherded legislation extending the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. In the view of Edwin Park, vice president for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Pallone’s work improved the program through laws passed in both 2007 and 2009.
“Representative Pallone is certain to be a staunch defender of federal health programs like Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP and the Affordable Care Act, which could be major targets of a budget reconciliation bill in 2015,” Park said.
It’s a role Pallone has been fine tuning for much of his career. As the communications chair for the Democratic Policy Committee, Pallone has helped shape the party’s message through floor speeches defending policy priorities.
He has been quick to cut through political arguments and focus on how the health law is affecting the lives of Americans. At a July Energy and Commerce hearing, for example, he noted how a projected 10.3 million people gained coverage through newly created health insurance marketplace. Roughly 3 million more young adults have been allowed to continue on their parents’ health plans under the law.
“These millions of people aren’t just a number. They’re actual people who can now see a doctor,” Pallone said. “They can now treat an illness that was otherwise going untreated, or better yet, they can remain healthy and prevent illness in the future.”
He told CQ Roll Call that the debates about the 2010 health law have tended to dominate coverage of the Energy and Commerce Committee, but that its members can find the common ground needed to move other health measures.
“When it comes to the day-to-day things and the bills that are not in the spotlight, we get a lot done,” Pallone said.
Pallone’s 6th District is home to pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, which has its headquarters in New Brunswick, and the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, which boosts the city’s health care industry profile. The 6th also covers most of Rutgers University’s campuses in New Brunswick and Piscataway Township.
Looming high on Pallone’s agenda is another reauthorization of CHIP and a permanent “doc fix” that would undo a congressional budget mechanism that now threatens to slash Medicare payments to physicians. Pallone also has expressed some enthusiasm for Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton’s 21st Century Cures Initiative, which aims to change Food and Drug Administration rules for approving new medical products.
At one of the first hearings Upton called, Pallone observed that Congress needs to make sure that people can benefit from any changes in federal policies that might get new drugs and medical devices to market faster.
“When we talk about the delivery of therapies, we’ve got to address access. Medical advances and cures at the earliest possible time is our shared goal,” Pallone said in May. “But we all must work together to ensure that when discovered, those cures can get to all patients and not just those who can afford them.”