Democrats in Washington have a historic opportunity with the reconciliation process to expand the social safety net to protect and care for America’s most vulnerable populations. This multi-trillion dollar Build Back Better (BBB) legislation will do so much for minority populations. However, that can only happen if Congress stays focused on delivering results based on need while sticking with President Joe Biden’s pledge to never raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 a year.
Unfortunately, several violations of that pledge snuck into the reconciliation bill, grinding its progress to a halt and putting its passage in peril.
Rep. James Clyburn led a Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) effort to strip the package of regressive tobacco tax hikes. No one is a fan of smoking, but when the average smoker makes less than $35,000 per year and smoking rates are higher in minority and LGBT communities, it’s clear the reconciliation bill as written would have been paid for in large part by underrepresented populations. To add insult to injury, the bill has also jacked up taxes on vapor products that have helped smokers quit traditional cigarettes. Clyburn and the CBC were right to advocate for its removal.
Another – literally life or death – challenge facing Black folks and other people of color is the lack of access to quality health care. This includes high prices for some prescription drugs. I’m encouraged to see Democrats prioritizing this issue in BBB, but there’s a huge problem: the legislation contains a whopping 95 percent tax on medicines that don’t meet government-prescribed price controls. This tax would nearly double the cost of drugs like insulin.
Remember, this is the proposal that is supposed to lower drug costs. And it is supposed to shield Americans making less than $400,000 per year from any tax hikes. Last I checked, the working class needs medicine as much as the ultra-wealthy. So, why are some politicians pushing a proposal through that keeps life-saving prescription drugs out of reach?
The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the inequities in our nation’s healthcare, including a lack of quality health care for minority communities. Black people are nearly three times as likely to be hospitalized for COVID than other Americans. Incomes also lag other racial groups, meaning a 95 percent tax on a Black patient is going to consume a larger portion of their income than their White peers.
With this in mind, some of my fellow Democrats are speaking up against this backward plan. In a letter signed by 10 House Democrats and led by Reps. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) and Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.), the Members encourage Speaker Pelosi to “lower costs across the board for patients, expand access to coverage and care, and preserve our invaluable innovation ecosystem;” The current price control/tax hike construct will do the exact opposite.
Auchincloss’ office raised specific concerns regarding the proposed legislation as introduced in the House, saying the congressman “does not think HR3 [the previous iteration of the 95 percent drug tax] does enough for patients. It doesn’t materially lower their out-of-pocket costs and it prevents cures they need. This letter is starting a conversation about improving drug pricing reform.”
Now more than ever, we should know innovative new drugs save lives. Why would we propose any legislation that could suppress new developments and access to lifesaving medicine, while raising taxes on the working class?
We cannot stifle innovation when it comes to medicine, and we cannot place a 95 percent drug tax on our most vulnerable patients. If Congress is serious about lowering the cost of prescription drugs for American patients, it should scrap the current proposal, which will do more harm than good to communities that need help the most.