Friday Five is a segment that asks five questions to a mover and shaker within the Wisconsin Healthcare community. This week we sat down with Senator Herb Kohl. Senator Kohl was born and raised in Milwaukee, where he attended public school. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1956 and a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1958. Senator Kohl is Chairman of the Special Committee on Aging.
1. What do you enjoy most about living in Wisconsin?
First of all, it’s just a beautiful state geographically. We are blessed with so many different natural resources that enable us to take part in all sorts of outdoor activities. There’s lots of open, undeveloped space. But also, I love the people. I’ve been lucky enough to get to know people from all over Wisconsin on a personal level. I truly appreciate what a fine people they are – they are friendly and they really care about each other, their families, and their communities. The values we have are unique, and I feel very fortunate to have been born here and to have lived here all my life.
2. You serve as the Chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, what are some recent accomplishments of the committee?
As Chairman of the Aging Committee, I am committed to the well-being of our nation’s seniors. Although we are not a legislative committee, we were able to have a number of provisions included in the health reform law that will improve the safety and health of seniors.
For starters, we passed the Nursing Home Transparency and Improvement Act, which significantly raises the bar for standards of care in nursing homes for the first time since 1987. AARP called our policy “one of the most significant nursing home reform initiatives” in two decades. Consumers will now have greater access to more information about individual nursing homes and their track record of care, and the government will have better tools for enforcing high quality standards.
We also included provisions to help expand, train, and support the health care workforce focused on older adults, as well as provisions to provide states with financial and structural incentives to provide more Medicaid beneficiaries with cost-effective home and community-based services. This is important because long-term care is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and many seniors prefer to avoid an institutional setting if they can stay in their home and have the care they need come to them. The good news is that everybody wins, because giving more seniors this option saves states and the federal government money.
One last provision I’ll mention is a piece of policy that I have championed for over a decade. Finally passed as part of health reform, the Patient Safety and Abuse Prevention Act will prevent those with violent or criminal histories from working with vulnerable elders in long-term care settings through the creation of a comprehensive nationwide system of background checks. We will be expanding a highly successful three-year pilot program instituted in seven states – including in four counties here in Wisconsin – that kept more than 9,500 serial predators out of the long-term care workforce.
I was proud to vote for this bill and I am excited to see all of its provisions implemented. Already, seniors who are in the Medicare Part D “donut hole” have started to receive a one-time $250 check to help with the cost of prescription drugs. Next year, all Medicare Part D beneficiaries will receive discounts on brand name drugs and subsidies for generics.
3. What is your vision for the future of healthcare in Wisconsin?
We are lucky in Wisconsin that our programs are generally ahead of the curve as compared to the rest of the country. I have long supported SeniorCare, a valuable program which helps many individuals in the state afford prescription drugs. In early 2009, I along with several of my colleagues sent a letter to the Obama Administration asking that it grant a request by Governor Doyle to extend the SeniorCare program. On August 18, 2009, the Administration announced that it had approved this request, and that it will extend SeniorCare through December 31, 2012. I am very pleased that the program has been extended and I will continue to support it in any way I can.
I also support the Family Care program, which strives to improve and expand access to a broad range of long-term care services that Medicaid traditionally does not cover. It prioritizes community solutions that value a high quality of life, independence, and care. Wisconsin is currently in the process of transitioning all counties from traditional Medicaid to the Family Care program; this process will hopefully be finished soon.
4. We are all becoming more personally responsible for our own health, what do you do to stay healthy?
I do typical things: I watch my weight and I watch what I eat. I try to stay active and walk places when I can, and I make sure to eat greens every day. I’m lucky to have been blessed with good health.
5. What are some initiatives you are currently working on that will affect Wisconsin?
As Chairman of the Aging Committee, I have held a number of hearings over the past year that will have an effect on health care for Wisconsinites. Most recently we looked at the health and safety concerns associated with the improper disposal of prescription drugs. Our witnesses, one of which was from Milwaukee, discussed the associated risks such as water contamination, drug diversion and the risks of unused drugs in your medicine cabinet. This hearing emphasized the need to expand programs such as the one in Wisconsin that collects leftover drugs and incinerates them, turning them into an energy source; or like a program in Maine, which has successfully implemented a comprehensive drug mail-back program.
I have also been concerned for some time about the price Americans pay for prescription drugs compared to other industrialized nations. In March, I sent letters to the manufacturers of the twelve most prescribed drugs in the U.S. asking them to explain why Americans pay, on average, two times what other industrialized nations pay for the same drugs. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States spends an average of $878 per person on prescription drugs. The average for other industrialized countries is $446. I firmly believe that drug quality should not be sacrificed for cost. But I am hopeful that manufacturers’ responses to these letters will be a step forward in understanding the large discrepancies in the cost of identical drugs.
Finally, upon discovering the increased enforcement by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of certain provisions of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA), in states such as Wisconsin and Ohio, the Committee promptly took up its oversight duties and held a listening session on this situation. We found that the DEA had begun to enforce a provision of the CSA that in turn affected access to pain medications and other controlled medications needed by residents in long-term care facilities, according to statements taken at the listening session. As a result of this session, DEA officials agreed to work with state controlled substance regulators toward a solution that would improve the pain medication delivery system in long-term care facilities, while still preventing diversion of these controlled substances.