Liberal health advocate looks to move beyond defense on ObamaCare

Liberal health advocate looks to move beyond defense on ObamaCare
© Stefani Reynolds

Frederick Isasi says people are sometimes surprised to learn he is the head of a major liberal advocacy group.

“It’s a funny thing to walk into a room with funders or with the press or with partners and they say, ‘Oh you’re the new [executive director], that’s interesting, like we’re not used to somebody that’s so young or kind of just seems really different,’ ” Isasi, who became the head of Families USA early last year, said in an interview with The Hill last week.

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“I am, you know, this son of refugees, I’m Latin, I’m openly gay, I’m in my 40s, and it really does bring a different perspective, and you can feel it,” he said.

Isasi, and his organization, will be in a prime position if Democrats win back the House on Tuesday, as most election-watchers expect they will.

A Democratic House would ensure that GOP hopes of fully repealing ObamaCare would be dead — at least for two more years — meaning liberals and Families USA could instead put their energy into trying to move the ball forward rather than playing defense.

“If Democrats do in fact take the House and we think those efforts die down, it gives us a lot more bandwidth to work on these other issues,” he said.

Those could include further moves to stabilize the ObamaCare markets and efforts to prevent patients from getting massive, surprise medical bills.

But perhaps the most promising area for Families USA — and one where bipartisan work could be possible — is in fighting high drug prices, a priority for both House Democrats and President TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation MORE.

It’s not every day the group praises the Trump administration. But it did last month after Trump proposed a bold step to reduce some drug prices in Medicare by tying them to the lower prices in other countries, calling the move an “important step forward.”

“The Trump administration has proposed some really interesting things on prescription drug pricing,” Isasi said. “We want to be supportive of that and we put out statements supporting that.”

Increasing outreach to Republican lawmakers, despite the group’s liberal views, is a priority for Isasi.

“On the congressional level you can’t have impact if you aren’t working across the aisle,” he said.

Isasi took over early last year as executive director from Ron Pollack, who founded Families USA and led it for almost 35 years.

Pollack was a key force in passing the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Former President Obama wrote a note on a copy of the law: “To Ron and Families USA – You made this happen!”

Isasi describes the ACA as a baseline that needs to be protected, but he’s also focused on other areas, including increasing work on the state level.

One step an increasing number of Democrats is embracing is single-payer health care, or “Medicare for all” as it’s been branded by vocal advocate Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California On The Money: Trump appeals to Supreme Court to keep tax returns from NY prosecutors | Pelosi says deal on new NAFTA 'imminent' | Mnuchin downplays shutdown threat | Trump hits Fed after Walmart boasts strong earnings MORE (I-Vt.).

Families USA is not making that one of its priorities at the moment, but Isasi says it supports the idea in principle.

“The Bernie Sanders bill is a wonderful approach that we would have to carefully analyze in the context it was being actually brought forward,” he said. “It’s going to change a lot, things like offsets have to be developed, policies have to be finalized, so we’d have to examine the bill in its totality as it’s being introduced to really know if we support it, but the concepts are ones that we support wholeheartedly.”

Isasi himself played a role in passing the ACA from inside Congress while his predecessor, Pollack, worked from the outside. Isasi was an aide to then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), a member of the Gang of Six, the group of senators who labored for months in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to find a bipartisan deal on the legislation. Isasi said one of the ObamaCare achievements he is most proud of is the Medicaid expansion.

Senators of both parties, he said, did not understand that coverage at the time was often limited to groups such as children and very poor parents and not the poor, childless adults who received Medicaid for the first time only because of the ACA.

“The senators would say, ‘Wait, I don’t understand, if you’re poor in America, you get Medicaid,’ and we’d say, ‘No, you don’t,’ ” Isasi recalled. “I remember being struck in negotiations, our starting point was, actually, people thought it was already the law.”

Isasi gained his passion for health-care advocacy in part from growing up the son of Cuban refugees in North Carolina, an area where both white people from Appalachia and Hispanic immigrants had problems getting medical care.

He worked as a translator in an emergency room and later advocated for people with HIV/AIDS in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

More recently, he worked on health care at the National Governors Association, a position where he worked with both parties.

But he might actually be most famous — at least around his neighborhood in Logan Circle — for his dog.

“Everyone always says, ‘Your dog looks like a lion,’ so about nine years ago we started giving him a lion cut and so literally he stops traffic,” Isasi said.

Winston, a golden retriever mix, is “perhaps one of the most famous dogs in Washington, D.C.,” Isasi says.

In addition to spending time with his identical twin — who lives just a few blocks away, causing some confusion — and his twin’s adopted 4-year-old daughter, Winston’s celebrity follows Isasi around, with people constantly coming up to take pictures of the dog.

“It has not gone to his head,” he said.