Welch explains implications of recent legislation

Legislative and White House action on key aspects of President Joe Biden’s agenda has heated up markedly in recent weeks with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the Honoring Our PACT Act, and the student debt relief package put forward by the President. The Standard reached out to Vermont U.S. Rep. Peter Welch last week to learn his perspective on this spate of activity on the part of both Congress and the White House. Here’s what Rep. Welch had to say.

Q: What three aspects of the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act will have the most immediate impact on working and middle-class Vermonters? How?

A: The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) lowers health care costs, brings down prescription drug prices, and makes investments in clean energy more affordable. Specifically, the bill finally allows Medicare to negotiate with Big Pharma to lower drug prices, which saves American taxpayers $260 billion. I have been working to give Medicare the tools it needs to protect patients from Big Pharma’s rip-off prices since I first arrived in Congress, and it has finally arrived in this bill. The IRA also capped out-of-pocket drug costs at $2,000 per year for seniors, allowing for them to save thousands on life-saving medications. The bill also continued the expanded tax credits to reduce health care premiums for 23,000 Vermonters who are enrolled in coverage through the Affordable Care Act marketplace. This will save those Vermonters over $1700 in their annual premium. This bill is also a game changer for combatting the climate crisis. The IRA provides point-of-sale tax credits for those who purchase new or used electric vehicles (EV), which will help make the transition to an EV more affordable and accessible. It also helps individuals who make clean energy improvements on their homes, and for emissions-free electricity sources and storage (things like wind, solar, geothermal, etc.) The benefits will be felt throughout our communities for years to come. 

Q: The White House and supporters have touted the potential impact of the Inflation Reduction Act in lowering the cost of prescription drugs, particularly for Medicare recipients. But does it apply to a wide enough range of medications? And how will it impact everyday Vermonters who are not Medicare recipients?

A: This bill and its progress is only the beginning at bringing down the cost of prescription drugs across the board, and Big Pharma has been attacking me for saying that. Why? Because they’re nervous — it’s just the start of loosening their grip on charging whatever they want for the prescription drugs that we need. This bill is a huge step forward and we’re going to continue fighting to lower the cost of prescription drugs for all of Vermont’s working families. 

Q: The Honoring Our PACT Act, passed by Congress early last month, significantly expands benefits and services for veterans exposed to toxins, such as those stemming from burn pits in war zones. What benefits will Vermont veterans now be able to access? 

A: This legislation is going to have an enormous impact on our veterans, notably our veterans who served in the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It establishes a presumption of service-connected disability for veterans who become ill from toxic burn pit exposure, which means it eliminates the red tape for millions of veterans who need care and benefits now. This legislation would not have passed without the fierce and persistent advocacy of Vermont veterans and their families, like Pat Cram and June Heston, whose husbands lost their lives because of exposure to toxic burn pits overseas. It was also in large part due to Vermont veteran and Hartford firefighter Wesley Black and his family. Wes lost his life to cancer caused by the toxic burn pits, but his tireless work to get the care for veterans that they need and deserve led to the passage of the PACT Act. 

Q:  Does the student debt relief package announced by President Biden last week go far enough to address the high cost of a college education? What more is needed in terms of federal action, especially for those low- and moderate-income Vermonters who are still seeking to enroll in college or post-secondary education programs?   

A: The way we finance higher education is broken in many ways. The step taken by President Biden is a good start because it will help 77,000 Vermonters who have on average over $37,000 in student debt. But this does not address the core issue of making higher education more affordable in the long term. We need to create a system that gives everyone a chance at pursuing a higher education that is affordable and accessible. One way to do that is through the Debt Free College Act, which I have co-sponsored. It would incentivize states to achieve debt-free college by unlocking matching federal funds. I’ve also cosponsored the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act to double the Pell Grant award and tie grants to the inflation rate. There is more we need to do to ensure Vermonters’ can afford to get the education they need and want.