Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Angie Craig

Steve Clemons: Representative Craig, we know that the elderly, homeless, communities of color have been harmed disproportionately by COVID-19. I know this is a priority for you. Tell us the steps you are taking.

Rep. Angie Craig:  Steve, thank you so much for having me today. It's quite an honor. This is something that we need to be thinking through now. As we search for a vaccine, how are we going to equitably distribute that vaccine? We know that this virus has affected, in many of my counties, Black and brown Minnesotans at six times the rate of white Minnesotans. And so we need to start thinking now about putting together an equitable distribution plan for this country. And I'm glad to follow the secretary [Alex Azar]. I certainly have some thoughts about how we view this from the Capitol. But it really doesn't matter how we view this at the Capitol because at the end of the day, if we don't start working together to stop playing politics with our health care in this country, we're not going to make any progress at all. And so many of the issues that the secretary identified were actually wrapped up in H.R. 1425 which passed the House last week — an increase in tax credits, extending maternal care in Medicaid to one year instead of the 60 days — just so many of the inequities that we see in health care today. 

 

Clemons: In communities of color in your district, among the Native American community, is there a view that the health care system is a stacked deck in favor of the white community? Is there a lack of trust in the health system we have today?

Craig: That's such a great question. I held a town hall on Zoom, just like everything else here the last couple of days, on disparities in our health care system, and I asked our counties throughout Minnesota, what are we doing to help bridge that trust gap? And in many of our community health centers and community clinics, it's as simple as making sure that we have folks who can speak various languages and communicate effectively. In many cases, it's a matter of helping people understand where they can go to get health care. And, you know, when I step back and I think about my congressional district, this is one of the highest rates of nonelderly with pre-existing conditions in the country. Fifty-one percent of the nonelderly in my congressional district have a pre-existing condition. So to hear the secretary talk about the work of the Affordable Care Act [ACA] 10 years ago, what people care about is their out of pocket cost, their cost of prescription drugs. What I'm trying to do is to drive biosimilars. Before I came to Congress, I had responsibility for health care at a major U.S. Fortune 500 company. We were self insured. We had stop-loss programs similar to the reinsurance programs we should have as part of today's health care system. And we also had a real challenge to control the cost of our biologic drugs. And we need to make sure that we have healthy competition with biosimilars. And so that's one of the things that I've really been working on is how do we think about the exclusivity period that we give for new drugs in this country? And at the end of the day, Steve, I think we need to step back. We've been having a conversation in this country for a decade about the cost of health insurance. We need to step back and have the conversation about the cost of health care.

 

Clemons: Could you tell us about the biosimilars debate? They are more prevalent in Europe than the U.S. What is the situation here? 

Craig: Right now for certain drugs — biologics — there's a 12-year market exclusivity period, and there are actually carveouts in the law that will allow for those brand-name drug companies to pay off generic providers from essentially bringing healthy competition into the marketplace. And so, for me, this isn't about, you know, biosimilars as a category. It's about how do we create healthy competition? What is a reasonable amount of time for a drugmaker to enjoy market exclusivity and how long — which, of course, means there's absolutely no competition to drive down price. I worked for a med tech company for 12 years. I was on the leadership team, so it may seem odd to have a former med tech executive say 'we've got to take a look at what's driving cost in this country. We've got to take a look at what is reducing competition.'  I personally supported the ACA. But I also implemented the ACA as part of a Fortune 500 company. And I saw many of the problems with it, and I worked to try, on an objective basis, to bring forward policy solutions that are gonna allow more people to access health insurance. But also, what are those things that are going to drive down the cost of health care in our nation? 

 

Clemons: You know, we've we've been talking a lot about not only, you know, health of humans, but the health of society. Where are you right now in this question of school reopening and how we should be doing it and whether we should be providing support for those schools that are going to be taking our children back?

Craig: You can't have the conversation about education without starting with the conversation about what should the federal strategy be around the health aspect of COVID-19. And so I certainly from the start have believed that we should have had a more robust federal strategy as it relates to testing, as it relates to contact tracing. I am one of the four founding members of the Supply Chain Caucus in the U.S. Congress, which, Steve, I never thought would be a sexy topic. It's a hot topic. And it comes down to how did we use the Defense Production Act? And I'm from a swing district. I support the administration when I think they're on the right track publicly, and I believe it's my responsibility to say out loud 'We need a federal strategy as it relates to testing, to supply chain, to make sure we have the components for the capacity of testing.' We have got to get our testing and our contact tracing capabilities ramped up in order to — and go back, we needed to do that to effectively reopen the economy. We've shown in many states we have not achieved an effective reopening of the economy. But we've got to go back to the source of the issue. I think you're going to see the same thing as it relates to education in this country. Unless we have strong testing, PPE, robust PPE supply, which I believe would require more robust use of the Defense Production Act, we're going to be opening, we're gonna be shutting down. We're not gonna have contact tracing capabilities in our schools. And at the end of the day, this is a health care issue. We can’t have the conversation about the economy or education without addressing the health care issue first.