DeGette: On Marijuana, Health Care and Student Loans
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat who has represented Colorado’s First District since 1997, will introduce bills this session to help ease federal-state issues over marijuana legalization and bring cures from the lab to patients more quickly. She’ll also focus on capping student loan interest rates and continue working on improvements to the Affordable Care Act.
DeGette said the rub between federal and Colorado marijuana laws can be fixed by amending the federal Controlled Substances Act. “The problem is that marijuana is listed as a Schedule I controlled substance,” she said. “Until we fix that, there’s a dichotomy between federal and state law. I introduced a bill last session, and will re-introduce it this spring, that amends the Controlled Substances Act. The Act has a section that says it preempts state law. So my bill amends the Act to say that it preempts state law EXCEPT when states have legalized marijuana. So if a state passes a law to legalize marijuana, federal law doesn’t preempt that law. It means people can get bank accounts and the feds couldn’t prosecute people in these states for violating federal law.
“It’s a bi-partisan bill that could really be an elegant solution to the problem of states’ rights versus the federal Controlled Substances Act. It’s difficult in the current political environment to legalize it nationally. But states like Colorado, Washington, Washington D.C. and Oregon should have their own laws on this. I think that as more and more states legalize marijuana, more and more issues will come up, like the banking issue. In the next few years, people are looking for a practical solution and I think my bill could be it. I think the vast majority of my constituents supported legalization, so my job as their elected official is to make the statutes work for them.”
DeGette plans to address the mounting costs of student loans. “I’m really concerned about the cost of a college education now,” she said. “I have a growing number of millennial constituents; in fact Denver is now a top city for millennials. People come here with massive student loan burdens. This is one of my big focuses in the next Congress. A bill introduced this session caps interest rates at 3.9 percent. Right now they are 4.66 percent for undergraduate loans, 6.21 percent for graduate loans, and some can go above that.
“Along with capping interest rates, we need to enact legislation that allows loan forgiveness for those who go into serving the underserved, including medical services. Also we should increase the number of Pell grants [which do not need to be repaid]. Pell Grants award about $5,700, but to go to a private college can cost upwards of $60,000. As a nation, we need to commit ourselves to helping kids go to college.”
DeGette wants to accelerate the pace of cures and medical breakthroughs in the 21st Century. She is working with Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, to draft the 21st Century Cures Initiative. Upton joins DeGette on the Committee on Energy and Commerce, which includes jurisdiction over healthcare. “The initiative is a way to bring cures from the lab to the clinic more quickly,” DeGette said. “Since the mapping of the human genome, where we can get each person’s own genomic information, and also with electronic medical records and the Internet, we’re able to get more information that is targeted and individualized. But the way the National Institutes of Health and the FDA are structured, it’s not set up to take advantage of the advances that we have. So we’re finding out how to modernize this system. We held hearings, roundtables and white papers to get information on individualized medicine—including a roundtable at National Jewish Health here in Denver.
“Let’s say someone had cancer and they had a certain gene. Then you could tailor the research, and possibly the treatment and the cure, to that person. We’re amazed how much people agree with what we should be doing. So now we’re writing legislation. It’s issues like this: maybe researchers at CU want to do critical research on the cancer patient jointly with two other universities. They’d have to go through the review process at each of the three universities, taking an enormous amount of time and cost to go through each. So we’re considering centralized institutional review boards, with one consent form if you’re doing research jointly, and one protocol. Also we’re looking at a central data registry, where researchers could get a subset of patients for targeted research; and also how to get more National Institutes of Health grants to young researchers. We’re drafting the initiative now and hope to pass it by Memorial Day.”
Affordable Care Act
DeGette lauded the successes of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) so far, but is concerned that it could be repealed. “The success is that 11 million more people are getting insurance and subsidies,” she said. “Also the cost curve has started to bend [meaning the rise in health spending continues to slow] because people go to doctors instead of to the emergency room—the most costly way to get healthcare.
“I don’t know what Republicans are thinking by bringing this law suit to nullify subsidies for people in the federal health insurance exchange. If it goes away, then their constituents will pay more for health insurance. And states that haven’t passed the state exchanges tend to be the heavily Republican states. So this is actually against their constituents’ interest, it seems to me.
“Colorado is in the vanguard with our state-run exchange; it’s one of a handful so far and it’s working quite well, though adjustments need to be made at both the state and federal level. If the Supreme Court struck down the subsidies in the federal exchange, we’d still have the ability here in Colorado. But people worry that eliminating subsidies for the federal exchange would hurt states with state exchanges because insurance costs nationwide would go up. So I don’t think Colorado is immune from these problems.
“Republicans complain about the ACA but they don’t offer an alternative to cover everybody. They recommend covering people with kids up to age 26, or eliminating lifetime caps on pre-existing conditions. But unless everybody is in the pool, it’s wildly expensive to do that. It’s why we have to have individual and employer mandates. I tell leadership we should fix the problems with the ACA, not just repeal it. But they want to repeal. The need isn’t going away, so I think we have to figure out how we can make it better. There are lots of things we can agree on. I suggest beefing up requirements for wellness and prevention; more emphasis on medical procedures that work; and looking at the definition of part-time employment to see if that is working. After all, we’re still fixing Medicare, and that was passed in 1964. The ACA is a large piece of legislation so there will always be things to fix. But they don’t want to do it.”
The ISIS Crisis
DeGette said the Islamic State is a serious threat that needs to be defeated by targeted means. “They are a threat to civilized society in the Middle East and the world, and we must work with our allies to defeat them. The White House has sent down a proposed congressional authorization for war powers. It’s not the first time I’ve had to vote on an authorization for war powers; I had to do it for Iraq. But I want to make sure that whatever we do is targeted at what the response needs to be. I have real reservations about U.S. ground troops going in there; I’m not sure that would be useful. I’d support giving military support—training and equipment—to the indigenous military force. It’s much more effective that way.”