By J. PATRICK PEPPER
DEARBORN — U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn) hailed the passage of national health reform legislation last week as “the dawn of a new day” where “the quality of life in America just got a whole lot better.”
Signed into law by President Barack Obama on Wednesday, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is expected to immediately provide health care coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans immediately and end insurance industry practices such as denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.
The measure comes after a year of rancorous debate among Congressional Democrats and Republicans and seemed on the brink of dying in the legislative process more than once. The legislation was eventually approved by a 220-207 in the House, despite receiving no Republican support and 32 “no” votes by Democrats. But for Dingell, who has spent decades pursuing health care reforms in Washington, the law was a clear step in the right direction – and a long time coming.
“I am proud of the courage displayed by our colleagues today,” Dingell said after the vote. “This is a great day for all of us, and I believe that someday all Americans will share that view.”
Reforming the nation’s health care system has been the ceaseless mission of the Dingell family since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the Oval Office. Dingell’s father, John Dingell Sr., was an avid New Dealer who introduced a national health care bill at the opening of every congressional session from 1933 until 1955, when he died while in office.
After winning a special election to replace his father at age 29, Dingell Jr. immediately picked up on the family work. He has introduced the same bill his father sponsored in every one of the 26 legislative sessions in which he has been a member of Congress.
While it never was able to gain traction, its principles have helped inform Dingell policy initiatives. In 1965, he. presided over the House when it passed the Medicare Act and stood with President Lyndon B. Johnson when the bill was signed into law.
The gavel that Dingell used to call that vote still sits on his desk to this day, and in a nod to history, was used by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) to gavel in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
In 1988, Dingell crafted the landmark Prescription Drug Marketing Act that was signed into law that year. The bill was created in response to problems with safety and handling of prescription drugs intended for export or to be dispensed as samples, and also economic issues raised by the sale of pharmaceuticals by health care institutions in competition with pharmacies.
The law “protects American consumers from mislabeled, subpotent, adulterated, expired or counterfeit pharmaceuticals, which are being dispensed under existing law and practice, and to restore competitive balance in the marketplace,” according to Dingell’s Web site.
When President Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 he vowed to overhaul health care, and Dingell naturally was tabbed as one of the key players for the initiative in the legislature. Dingell at the time was chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. But despite a reputation for legislative legerdemain, he was unable to get the committee to send the measure to the House floor.
The Democratic side of the committee could not come to a consensus on the bill, and by the time Dingell took the reins of the legislation from a quarrelsome subcommittee, the tide of opinion had turned against the Democrats.
That resulted in them losing control of Congress and Dingell losing his chairmanship in 1994. He has called the defeat one of the “biggest disappointments” of his five-decade legislative career.
But 15 years later and with the Democrats back in control, Dingell finally has helped fulfill the dream that has father had more than 75 years ago.
“After generations of debate, we have successfully addressed one of the greatest moral and economic problems of the day,” he said in a statement.
“What we have done will protect health care, as well as jobs and our entire economy for generations of Americans.”