Dr. Boozman's Check-up

Lost in the hyper partisanship of Senator Reid’s power grab this week was the bipartisan reauthorization of a rare Washington success story: the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Started under the vision and leadership of President George W. Bush, PEPFAR, the U.S. government initiative to combat HIV/AIDS around the world, has been credited with saving millions of lives over the past ten years.

As Voice of America notes, PEPFAR “supports almost six million people worldwide who are receiving anti-retroviral drugs, and has provided care and support to nearly 15 million people, including more than 4.5 million orphans and vulnerable children.”

Prior to the creation of the program, an estimated 100,000 people were on anti-retroviral drugs in sub-Saharan Africa. Five years later, when President Bush left office, close to two million people were receiving these life-saving drugs. One million babies have now been born HIV-negative thanks to PEPFAR's mother-to-child interventions.

As we continue to build on those incredible results, PEPFAR is increasingly transitioning from an emergency U.S.-led program to one in which recipient countries increasingly sustain the effort themselves. This reauthorization will continue the program on this path while ensuring that strong accountability and oversight mechanisms are followed to continue this success.

As we approach the holiday season, it is important to remember that the U.S. still has a vital role in helping the less fortunate around the globe. In 2003, when signing the legislation we passed to create the program, President Bush called PEPFAR "a medical version of the Marshall Plan." It truly exemplifies the ideals for which our nation stands. I am excited that we will be able to continue the important work of this life-saving program.

We wrapped up a busy week in Washington before adjourning for Thanksgiving recess. Here’s what happened in the Senate:

  • Senate Rules Change: Senator Reid broke the rules to change the rules of the Senate, majorly altering the way in which the chamber operates. I voted against this change that reduces the minority’s ability to filibuster executive branch and most judicial nominees. 
  • PEPFAR Reauthorized: The Senate reauthorized the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Started under the vision and leadership of President George W. Bush, PEPFAR, the U.S. government initiative to combat HIV/AIDS around the world, has been credited with saving millions of lives during the last decade. 

The Senate Veteran Affairs Committee took an important step in continuing our promise to the men and women who served in the Armed Forces by funding, in advance, all veteran services such as compensation and pensions and vocational rehabilitation loans programs the same way we do veterans’ health accounts by passing The Putting Veterans Funding First Act of 2013

This legislation introduced by my colleague Mark Begich (D-AK) and I, would to allow for better planning and management of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and would prevent veterans' benefits from being jeopardized in the event of future lapses in funding. This is a common sense way to fulfill our commitment to take care of the men and women who sacrificed for our country and provide them with the services on which they rely by funding them one year in advance. 

While the legislation is widely supported by Veteran Service Organizations, VA Secretary Shinseki is not embracing this idea. As Military Times reports “Shinseki made the point that veterans still would be hurt in a shutdown because many VA programs are inextricably intertwined with other federal agencies.” I agree that we should eliminate the threat of interruptions in government services and this legislation would prevent veterans’ benefits from being threatened in the future. 

The approval by the Senate committee is a major hurdle and I encourage the House to support H.R. 813, similar legislation that has been introduced in that chamber.

Pastor Saeed Abedini, an American held captive in Iran for practicing his Christian faith, has been behind bars in Iran for more than a year. Recent reports indicate that he was transferred from a prion in Teharn to Rajai Shahr in Karaj, a notoriously brutal prison.

This abrupt transfer is cause for concern. The American Center for Law and Justice calls this transfer a grave danger to Pastor Saeed and urged President Obama’s attention.

I joined several of my colleagues urging the President to act to save Pastor Saeed and call for his release. Read our letter here

“If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan” is a phrase President Obama often repeated while campaigning for his signature health care law.

It was meant to alleviate the concerns that millions of Americans had about being forced off their insurance and/or losing their doctors. Turns out those concerns were valid.

This oft-repeated, “promise” was a “whopper” of a lie, according to the Fact Checker blog at The Washington Post.  

The Post writes:

The president’s statements were sweeping and unequivocal — and made both before and after the bill became law. The White House now cites technicalities to avoid admitting that he went too far in his repeated pledge, which, after all, is one of the most famous statements of his presidency.

The president’s promise apparently came with a very large caveat: “If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan — if we deem it to be adequate.” 

What President Obama really meant was if he likes your health care plan you can keep it. If not, you’re out of luck.

One month in and at least 3.5 million Americans have received insurance cancellation notices. That number is only expected to continue to climb in the final weeks of 2013 and beyond.

The President’s response to the mess he created is telling the millions of Americans who have received cancellation notices they can “just shop around” for new policies that often come with more expensive premiums and higher deductibles.

There’s a better way forward, Mr. President. Short of repealing and replacing this disaster of a program, we need to add flexibility to the standards for policies under Obamacare and give Americans the freedom to keep their plans if they so choose. We can easily accomplish that by passing a bill introduced by Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), which has the support of a majority of Senate Republicans, including myself, and will give Americans who like their individual policies the ability to keep them.

Decreased coverage, increased premiums and expanded government is not what the American people want, need or deserve. This is not what they want in a healthcare system. The real solution is repealing this law and replacing it with healthcare reform that will work. Until we can achieve that goal, we must offer some relief to the millions of Americans who are now receiving cancellation notices thanks to Obamacare.

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette (subscription required) reported today that fewer than 200 people have signed up for health care coverage through the exchanges. Insurance company executives blamed problems with Healthcare.gov, the federal website we have to use to sign residents up for the exchanges.

The Administration wants to brush these troubles off as a small bump in the road to implementation. In reality, what the Administration calls “glitches” may have a detrimental impact on the pocketbook of everyday Americans.  

The clock is ticking. Every American who is not enrolled in Administration-approved medical insurance by the end of March will be taxed. Yet, the Administration’s failures make compliance impossible for millions of Americans. Instead of acknowledging this error, the President and his team plan to subject Americans to this unjust tax if they do not comply by March 31, 2014, despite the fact that the administration has failed to make the website work.

This is all the more reason why every American should be granted a reprieve from Obamacare. This week, I joined Senator Marco Rubio and seven of our colleagues to introduce the Delay Until Fully Functional Act. This bill would delay the individual mandate until six months after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) certifies that the exchange website is fully functional.

Certainly the rollout of the Obamacare website has been nothing short of a disaster. However, Healthcare.gov is a microcosm of the serious problems created by putting a government bureaucracy in charge of our health care. Setting up and thoroughly testing a fully-operational website prior to launching it should be the easy part. The fact that the Administration can’t deliver on the easiest of its healthcare promises doesn’t bode well for Americans forced into this bureaucratic monstrosity. It is safe to say that there will be more problems if we continue to move forward, even for those “lucky” few who can sign-up before the deadline.

Until we can achieve the real solution of repealing this law and replacing it with market-based reforms, delaying the individual mandate is the only fair course of action.

Despite the rainy weather, we still had a good turnout for our bipartisan, bicameral press conference on veterans funding this morning.

Senate and House Veterans Affairs’ Committee chairmen were on hand to speak as were representatives from many of the leading Veterans Service Organizations including the Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Military Officers Association of America.

My remarks at the event focused on a bill I am sponsoring with Senator Mark Begich of Alaska (who also participated in this morning’s event) to allow Congress to pass advanced funding for key veterans’ programs.

In this era of budget uncertainty and funding lapses, protecting essential veterans’ services from being used as political footballs is the right thing to do. Expanding one-year advanced funding for these VA programs, like we currently do for VA health care, can ensure that all the services which our veterans have earned, and depend on, will continue should there be future funding lapses. As we saw from the shutdown, many veterans’ benefits – including disability compensation, pension and GI Bill benefits – also need the protection that advance funding provides them. 

At the same time, protecting veterans during budget fights isn’t the only reason to do this. To me, this seems like common sense budgeting that would enable the VA to have greater certainty and better planning for programs it’s implementing for our men and women who have served. So let’s work together to pass this bill and get our veterans the certainty they deserve.

President Obama promised that Americans who liked their healthcare plan would not lose existing coverage as a result of his healthcare overhaul. Unfortunately millions of Americans are experiencing the reality that they will not be able to keep their health insurance.

What’s worse is that the Administration expected this to happen. The only thing that seems to being going according to plan with this rollout is the cancellation of millions of people from their current health plans.

Early last year the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report showing that 4 million fewer Americans will receive employer-based healthcare coverage under Obamacare.

Decreased coverage, increased premiums and expanded government is not what the American people want, need or deserve. This is not what they want in a healthcare system. The real solution is repealing this law and replacing it with healthcare reform that will work. I continue to work toward that goal.

The rollout of Obamacare has been nothing short of a disaster. Before the law’s implementation, state officials assured us that there would be up to eight carriers offering insurance on the individual market. The President even compared shopping on the exchanges to buying airline tickets online from a website like Expedia or Travelocity.

Sounds easy right?

If you try logging on to the Arkansas Health Connector Website, you will find at most, four plans offering coverage. Over 75% of the state will have three or fewer provider options.

How does this shopping experience remotely resemble anything close to Expedia or Travelocity when you have only one, maybe two carriers to shop from?  This is sadly the case in large parts of Arkansas—just one airline with overpriced tickets for coach to pick from.

The troubles with Obamacare run far deeper than “technical glitches.” The Administration’s lackluster response to the online enrollment problems shines a light on this program’s gross mismanagement.

So far, the Administration is failing to meet constitutional requirements of fairness and equality before the law. This is why Congressmen Rick Crawford (AR-01), Tim Griffin (AR-02), Steve Womack (AR-03), Tom Cotton (AR-04) and I sent a letter to the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius requesting information so that we can evaluate legislative solutions to address these issues.  

We requested that she provide:

  1. All correspondence between HHS and the Arkansas Department of Insurance regarding the impact regulations will have on the number of providers within the Arkansas insurance market.
  2. All correspondence you provided to stakeholders in Arkansas regarding the status of the exchanges leading up to their launch on October 1, 2013.
  3. The number of confirmed enrollments in Arkansas, as of Friday, October 25, 2013.

The full letter is attached below. Secretary Sebelius needs to quickly and thoroughly respond to these questions. I will share the Secretary’s response upon receipt. 

World Polio Day

Oct 24 2013

While the U.S. eradicated polio more than 30 years ago, globally this fight is not over. In August an outbreak of polio in Somalia inflicted 105 people with the deadly disease, more cases than all other countries combined. The UN became alarmed earlier this month at the looming threat of polio throughout regions of Sudan and vaccinations against the disease in Pakistan are coming under attack and threatening global health efforts to eradicate the disease.

We have the vaccine to stop polio in its tracks and a worldwide push is underway to eliminate the disease. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative implemented a five year strategic plan to eradicate polio by 2018. The Shot@Life Campaign, Rotary International, the Gates Foundation, and many others are making a difference on this front. Efforts to fight polio have reduced cases by 99 percent since 1988, but clearly more work needs to be done.

That’s why we’re raising awareness about this disease and recognizing today as World Polio Day. I am happy to join my senate colleagues in supporting a resolution that commends the international community for fighting against this disease by vaccinating kids around the world and offers our continued commitment to eradicate this disease once and for all.