WASHINGTON — Rep. Renee Ellmers voted for across-the-board budget cuts and likes that they are chipping down federal spending.
But she’s trying to fix what she says is an unintended consequence: Senior citizens fighting cancer must pay more and often travel farther for their chemotherapy.
The Republican congresswoman from Dunn, a former nurse, has been drumming up support for a bill she wrote that would exempt cancer treatments from the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
She had 106 members of the House of Representatives signed on to the plan – both Republicans and Democrats – before Congress began its August recess on Friday. Ellmers says she’s confident that the bipartisan show of support will mean a vote in favor of the bill on the House floor in September.
“We needed to make the cuts at the federal level to the budget. But at the same time, now we’re seeing this is impacting negatively a very vulnerable population,” Ellmers said. Her comments came Thursday, two days after announcing she’d decided not to run for the U.S. Senate next year. She had been mentioned as a possible challenger to Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
Beginning April 1, the across-the-board cuts required that Medicare cut payments for cancer drugs by 2 percent. That forced many community-based cancer care centers to send patients away to hospitals.
“A lot of these folks – because they’re low income, they’re elderly – they have to depend on someone to get them there for their treatments, and sometimes they may have to travel 20 miles out of their community,” she said. “It really has a devastating effect.”
One study estimated it would cost Medicare $6,500 more to divert a patient to a hospital, and it would cost a patient $650 more in out-of-pocket expenses.
Ellmers voted two years ago for the legislation that set up the across-the-board spending cuts for the next decade. The threat of the cuts was meant to goad Congress into agreeing to a budget. But partisan divisions made that impossible. And there’s no agreement on next year’s budget, either.
Ellmers acknowledged that sequestration isn’t a good policy but added, “it has had a positive effect on slowing the spending that we’re doing.”
Some House Democrats want to avoid a piecemeal approach and eliminate the cuts by passing a budget. So far, House Republicans have not agreed to appoint members of a conference committee that would negotiate with the Senate to work out differences between Democratic and Republican budget demands.
The question of how to pay for avoiding the cuts for cancer patients without increasing the deficit is still pending. Ellmers has asked the Congressional Budget Office to report how much it would cost to avoid the cuts. Then, she plans to propose a way to pay for it.
Donald H. Taylor, a health policy expert who teaches at Duke University’s Sanford School and the Duke Medical Center, said everyone agreed two years ago that sequestration would be a terrible policy.
“Sequestration has real effects on real people,” and Ellmers has recognized one group that everyone can identify with, he said.
“I suspect some of the Republicans in the House are getting embarrassed that all they can say is what they’re against,” Taylor added. “This gives her a chance to say, ‘Here’s some positive change I want to make.’ ”
He didn’t think exemptions to the sequester – things like cancer drugs for the elderly and myriad other parts of the budget that are largely popular – were likely in such a starkly divided Congress.
When Congress returns in September, lawmakers will have to vote on a continuing resolution to fund the federal government past the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Without the money, much of the government would have to shut down.
Some Republicans insist that the spending bill not have any money in it to implement the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act.
Ellmers has made fighting “Obamacare” her top issue. She voted with House Republicans for the 40th time on Friday to undo the health care law.
But Ellmers said she wasn’t among the House Republicans – 77, as of Friday – who signed a letter written by Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican who represents much of Western North Carolina, that urges House Speaker John Boehner not to support any spending bill that has money for the president’s health care plan, which could possibly trigger a government shutdown.
Ellmers said she would not support such a threat.
“Absolutely not,” Ellmers said. “Why would I trade one economic disaster for another economic disaster?”