PISCATAWAY – The sales-pitch effort for the Build Back Better bill that is precariously pending a vote in the U.S. Senate came to a Middlesex County senior center Monday – not that there are any key swing votes on it there or anywhere in New Jersey.

The House narrowly passed the budget reconciliation bill 10 days ago, and it’s a foregone conclusion that New Jersey’s two senators would support it if it’s posted for a vote.

But that didn’t stop U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-NJ, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that handles the bulk of health care policy in the House, from joining advocacy groups to highlight what they call the most significant expansion since the Affordable Care Act.

“There’s just a lot in this bill that is really going to make a difference in people’s health care, particularly seniors but not just seniors,” Pallone said.

Among the features of the bill highlighted by Pallone:

  • Medicare would have the power to negotiate for lower drug prices, though not all drug prices could be negotiated, under the bill. Patented drugs that are still in their exclusivity period won’t be included. “I would have done that, but that’s not what’s in this,” he said. “But it certainly allows for negotiations of drugs beyond the patent period, beyond the exclusive period.”
  • Medicare patients can’t spend more than $2,000 a year on out-of-pocket prescription drugs, about $167 a month. “You know, some people say, well, why should they have to pay anything, but there are a lot of seniors paying significantly more than $2,000 a year,” he said.
  • Drug companies would have to pay a rebate to the federal government if they increase their prices more than the rate of inflation. Pallone thinks it will help significantly, even though the rebates aren’t paid out to individual consumers. “What we think is going to happen is that the drug companies won’t want to pay that rebate to the federal government, so that will really reduce prices,” he said.

Pallone was joined at the event by AARP New Jersey, New Jersey Citizen Action and patient advocate Lisa Ann Trainor.

“New Jerseyans like me need you to fight for thousands of us affected by the unaffordable price of our prescription drugs,” said Trainor, a Kingston resident. “So many New Jerseyans are suffering right now. We don’t have time to wait.”

The bill, which carries a 10-year price tag of perhaps $1.75 trillion, is unlikely to get any Republican votes in the evenly divided Senate. To pass it, Democrats would need all 50 of their members to support it and Vice President Kamala Harris to break the tie.

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State Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, said that it’s clear that Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez back it but that New Jerseyans might want to call relatives in states with senators who are opposed – in particular, it would seem, if they live in Arizona or West Virginia, home to not-yet-convinced Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin.

“Ask them to make sure that their U.S. senators know how important Build Back Better is to your future health care,” Smith said. “You’ve gotta do it. You absolutely, positively have to do it for your family and friends.”

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