California Rep. Eric Swalwell Is Running For President, Too, With A Focus on Guns

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., speaks to a group in Iowa City, Iowa, in February. Swalwell, who became the latest Democrat to run for president, was born in Iowa but grew up in California.

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California Rep. Eric Swalwell is the latest Democrat to jump into the race for president.

I see a country in quicksand, unable to solve problems and threats from abroad, unable to make life better for people here at home. Nothing gets done,” Swalwell said in an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert Monday night.

After walking through a list of issues from foreign threats to student loan debt to gun violence, he added, “None of that is going to change until we get a leader who is willing to go big on thee issues we take on, be bold in the solutions we offer and do good in the way that we govern. I’m ready to solve these problems. I’m running for president of the United States.”

Swalwell is the 18th Democrat to join the race for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination.

TONIGHT: California Representative @EricSwalwell announces on @colbertlateshow that he is running for President! #LSSC

— The Late Show (@colbertlateshow) April 8, 2019

One of the key issues the California Democrat, 38, is highlighting is one important to young voters in particular: gun safety. He’s hosting a town hall Tuesday on the subject at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., only 13 miles from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the scene of the 2018 massacre that killed 17 people. The BB&T Center, where the Florida Panthers ice hockey team plays, is an arena with capacity seating of more than 20,000.

That Parkland shooting has led to mass demonstrations and activism from not just survivors of the shooting but many other young people across the country. In fact, helping to organize the town hall was Cameron Kasky, a Parkland survivor, who was Swalwell’s guest for the State of the Union address.

Swalwell has also taken on the National Rifle Association, proposing an assault-weapons ban. The NRA put Swalwell on the cover of its January magazine, which Swalwell embraced, saying he is “living in the NRA’s head.”

Living in the @NRA‘s head & on the cover of their magazine! But they mischaracterized my position. My plan to ban assault weapons is not “hollow.” It’s very real & the public is with me.

And sorry, the “1st Freedom” is not unregulated gun ownership. It’s life. #EnoughIsEnough

— Rep. Eric Swalwell (@RepSwalwell) December 19, 2018

Swalwell got put on that cover after landing in controversy a couple months earlier because of a reply to a Twitter user. The user said Swalwell “wants a war” over gun rights and that he’s out of his mind “if you think I’ll give up my rights and give the gov[ernment] all the power.”

To which Swalwell said, “it would be a short war my friend. The government has nukes.”

And it would be a short war my friend. The government has nukes. Too many of them. But they’re legit. I’m sure if we talked we could find common ground to protect our families and communities.

— Rep. Eric Swalwell (@RepSwalwell) November 16, 2018

“The Snapchat king of Congress”

It would make some sense that Swalwell announce in a pop-culture setting, given that he was appointed as the director of youth outreach for the House Democratic caucus by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi in 2015.

Swalwell, who was born in Iowa but grew up in California, is less known than some other Democrats running for president. But he has been a fixture on cable news during the Mueller probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign.

Swalwell is used to being the underdog. He won his seat to Congress in 2012 when he was only 31. The former deputy district attorney from the East Bay are of California, near San Francisco, ousted a 40-year incumbent Democrat, Pete Stark.

That rankled the party establishment, but he quickly made nice with Pelosi, a fellow Bay Area congresswoman – and powerful leader on Capitol Hill.

Instead of making an enemy of Swalwell, Pelosi, who has faced criticism that the party needs younger leadership, embraced him. Swalwell became known as the “Snapchat king of Congress.”

“I realized that so many of our constituents were on Snapchat,” Swalwell told The Hill in 2016. “It wasn’t just young people, but their parents had figured out that’s where their kids are.”

Swalwell has been married to Brittany Watts since 2016. He was married once before, but it ended in divorce.

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Trump Administration Kills Baseball Deal With Cuba

The Trump administration has canceled a deal between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation that would have allowed Cuban players to join professional teams in the U.S. and Canada.

Under the four-month-old agreement, a major league club seeking to sign certain Cuban players would have to pay a release fee – 25 percent over the player’s signing bonus – to the Federation. The player would also have to pay Cuban income taxes on foreign earnings.

The deal, which was initially negotiated under President Barack Obama, met with immediate opposition from the Trump administration.

Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, seen in 2017, was one of the Cuban players who survived a risky, secret journey to the U.S. to play baseball.

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It was designed to end the often dangerous pattern of ambitious Cuban stars seeking to join the major leagues by defecting and arranging to smuggle themselves out of Cuba with the aid of human traffickers. Under the agreement, Cuban players may return to the island during the off-season, unlike those who defect.

A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said in a briefing that the agreement itself was a form of “human trafficking” by the Cuban government and that the Cuban Baseball Federation is a subsidiary of the Cuban government.

“We look forward to the day that Cuban baseball players can fully contract with Major League Baseball like players from every other country in the world and not as pawns of the Cuban dictatorship,” the official told reporters.

Major League Baseball defended the plan.

“We stand by the goal of the agreement, which is to end the human trafficking of baseball players from Cuba,” said league vice president Michael Teevan, in a terse e-mailed statement.

The administration blocked the baseball deal just a few days after the Cuban federation released the names of 34 players eligible to sign with MLB teams. Cuban players older than 25 years old and with six years of experience were eligible for the arrangement. Younger players were required to get the Cuban Baseball Federation’s blessing to play for MLB teams.

“The agreement with #MLB seeks to stop the trafficking of human beings, encourage cooperation and raise the level of baseball,” the Cuban Baseball Federation said in a message on Twitter as quoted by Reuters. “Any contrary idea is false news. Attacks with political motivation against the agreement achieved harm the athletes, their families and the fans.”

Some Florida lawmakers had opposed the baseball agreement for being an accommodation with the Cuban government. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, in December, called the deal “both illegal and immoral.”

Among the Cuban-born players who have defected and struck it rich signing with MLB clubs in recent years are Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets and Yasiel Puig of the Cincinnati Reds.

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How HHS Secretary Alex Azar Reconciles Medicaid Cuts With Stopping The Spread Of HIV

HHS Secretary Alex Azar at a White House roundtable discussion of health care prices in January. Azar tells NPR his office is now in “active negotiations and discussion” with drugmakers on how to make HIV prevention medicines more available and “cost-effective.”

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In his State of the Union address this year, President Trump announced an initiative “to eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years.”

The man who pitched the president on this idea is Alex Azar, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We have the data that tells us where we have to focus, we have the tools, we have the leadership — this is an historic opportunity,” Azar told NPR’s Ari Shapiro Monday. “I told the president about this, and he immediately grabbed onto this and saw the potential to alleviate suffering for hundreds of thousands of individuals in this country and is deeply passionate about making that happen.”

Trump’s push to end HIV in the U.S. has inspired a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism from public health officials and patient advocates. Enthusiasm, because the plan seems to be rooted in data and is led by officials who have strong credentials in regards to HIV/AIDS. Skepticism, because of the administration’s history of rolling back protections for LGBTQ people, many of whom the program will need to reach to be successful.

For instance, transgender people are three times more likely to contract HIV than the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trump has banned transgender people from serving in the military and undone rules that allow transgender students access to bathrooms that fit their gender presentation.

Azar himself has strong Republican credentials — as a young man, he clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia. And yet he’s now touring the country promoting this plan to end HIV, which includes supporting needle exchange programs to reduce HIV infection among intravenous drug users.

“Syringe services programs aren’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a Republican health secretary,” Azar acknowledged at an HIV conference last month. “But we’re in a battle between sickness and health — between life and death.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

This morning you toured facilities in East Boston, a neighborhood in one of 48 counties targeted in Trump’s plan. What did you learn there?

I was able to be at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center and they have a remarkable program called Project Shine. What I was able to do is meet with the entire team that provides this type of holistic approach. It is very much what we’re going to try to do in the most impacted areas.

You find the individuals who may have HIV — get them diagnosed. Get those who are diagnosed on the HIV antiretroviral treatment — so that they have an undetectable viral load and can’t spread the disease to others, as well as live a long healthy life themselves. Get those who are most at risk of contracting HIV on a medicine called PrEP so that they dramatically reduce their chance of getting HIV. And then, finally, respond when you have clusters of outbreaks. So, just getting to see the the holistic approach there was extremely helpful for me.

Given that Medicaid is the single largest payer for medical care for people with HIV, do Republican efforts to block Medicaid expansion in high-infection states like Mississippi and Alabama undermine your efforts to get more people treatment?

The program that we have is based on the assumption that Medicaid remains as it is. …. And even were we to change Medicaid, along the lines of what the president has proposed in the budget …

Meaning the major reductions to Medicaid that are in the president’s budget?

Well, there are there are some reductions. But what it would do is actually give states tremendous flexibility. One of the challenges in the Affordable Care Act was that it prejudiced the Medicaid system very much in favor of able-bodied adults, away from the more traditional Medicaid populations of the aged, the disabled, pregnant women and children.

What we would do is restore a lot of flexibility of the states so that they could put those resources really where they’re needed. We would expect that those suffering from HIV/AIDS infection would be in the core demographic of people that you would want to make sure were covered. What we will do here, by stopping the epidemic of HIV, is have a dramatic reduction in cost for the Medicaid and Medicare programs in the future.

So one big part of your plan is expanding access to PrEP, the HIV prevention drug. Without insurance it can cost around $1,600 a month in the U.S. A generic version available overseas costs roughly $6 a month. AIDS activists say your department could ‘march in’ and break the patent that Gilead holds in order to make a generic version available to Americans. Is your agency going to pursue that?

I don’t know what you’re saying by breaking the patent. There’s no such thing as a legal right to break patents in the United States …

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has a patent for PrEP, which Gilead disputes

Well, that’s very different than breaking a patent. That would be asserting patent rights held by the CDC. So the CDC has a patent on the product and Gilead has a patent on the product. We are actually in active negotiations and discussion with Gilead right now on how we can make PrEP more available and more cost effective for individuals as part of this ending the HIV epidemic program.

I recently went to Jackson, Miss., which has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the country. I talked to Shawn Esco, a black gay man, who told me that stigma, homophobia, and racism prevent people from seeking care, and he has very little hope. What would you say to him?

That is exactly what the president and I want to solve. I want to give him that hope. So many of the infections are happening in areas of our country where there’s intense stigma against individuals — males who have sex with men; the African-American community, Latino community, American Indian, Alaska Native communities. What’s really made this is a historic opportunity right now is we have data that show us that 50 percent of new infections are happening in 48 counties as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and so we can focus those efforts.

We want to learn from people on the ground, as I did this morning here in East Boston. How do we reduce stigma? How do we provide a holistic approach for Shawn and others? We can get them diagnosed and get them on treatment in ways that they find acceptable — or, as one of the individuals said to me this morning, meet people where they are.

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Government Watchdog Flips On Dollar Coin

A pile of newly minted one-dollar coins honoring former Thomas Jefferson are seen at the unveiling by the U.S. Mint in Washington, D.C., in 2007. In a turnaround, congressional analysts are no longer recommending a phaseout of paper dollars in favor a dollar coin.

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Who says a dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to?

When it comes to dollar bills, a new report from the federal government says they’re lasting more than twice as long as they were at the beginning of the decade.

And that’s upending an old argument about replacing the dollar bill with a $1 coin.

Analysts have long argued the federal government could save money by making the switch because even though coins cost more to mint, they last much longer than paper money. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office estimated the savings at $5.5 billion over 30 years.

But a second look from the GAO flips that coin argument on its head. Analysts now say the government would lose between $611 million and $2.6 billion over 30 years by phasing out the dollar bill. The economics have shifted because dollar bills are lasting longer.

“When we last looked at this issue in 2011, the paper dollar was only lasting a little bit over three years,” said John Shumann, an assistant director at the GAO. “When we looked at this issue again this year, we found that the paper dollar is now lasting almost eight years long.”

Shumann said that’s partly because of changes in the way the Federal Reserve processes dollar bills. But it’s also a sign that in an increasingly cashless world, paper dollars aren’t getting around like they used to.

“They’re often showing less signs of wear and tear,” Shumann said.

As part of its research, the GAO surveyed lots of industries that might have a stake in the paper-versus-coin contest, and found most are not eagerly embracing the switch to $1 coins.

Even the Coin Laundry Association.

“You know, it’s right in our name,” said CEO Brian Wallace, whose group represents some 30,000 self-service laundries around the country.

Despite the name, only a handful of those businesses currently accept $1 coins. Meanwhile, alternative payment options have proliferated.

“You could still pay with a quarter,” Wallace said. “But you could also pay with a credit card or add value to a card. Or taking the Starbucks approach of just waving the phone at the washer and it starts.”

Other businesses long associated with coins have also moved on.

“One upon a time, toll roads, along with transit systems and the post office itself were the largest coinage handlers in the country,” said Neil Gray, director of government affairs for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

Not any more. Fewer than one in five toll-road users pay cash today.

“To the extent possible, we’ve had entire toll road systems eliminate cash completely,” Gray said.

Even slot machines have largely done away with coin slots.

(One exception is the gumball machine industry, which told the GAO it could offer higher-quality gum and toys if more people carried $1 coins.)

The new GAO report may discourage congressional efforts to phase out the dollar bill. In any case, $1 coins have proven stubbornly unpopular with the public. That’s why the Fed has more than a billion of the coins sitting unused, in storage.

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Drug Industry Middlemen To Be Questioned By Senate Committee

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, will lead the Senate Finance Committee’s questioning Tuesday of executives from pharmacy benefit managers about drug costs.

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Consumers, lawmakers and industry players all seem to agree that prescription drugs prices are too high. What they can’t always agree on is whom to blame.

On Tuesday, though, fingers are expected to point toward pharmacy benefit managers, the industry’s mysterious middlemen.

The Senate Finance Committee will hear from executives from the biggest pharmacy benefit managers, led by CVS Caremark and Cigna’s Express Scripts.

“They’re kind of a secret organization,” says Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, of the pharmacy benefit managers. “I ask people to explain what they’re doing and nobody seems to give you the same answer twice.” Grassley is chairman of the Finance Committee and Tuesday’s hearing is its third on drug prices this year.

Pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, manage prescription drug benefits for insurance companies and employers. And because they control the medication purchases of millions of patients, they are tremendously powerful.

“They exist only because pharmaceutical prices got so high and they were a way to get some market power in there that was on the consumer side,” says Len Nichols, a health economist at George Mason University. “Now they’ve become so big and dominant that they are hurting pharma.”

How dominant? CVS Caremark negotiates drug prices, copayments and which drugs are preferred options for more than 92 million people in the U.S. Express Scripts covers another 83 million.

The companies are hired by insurance companies, or self-insured employers, to control spending on prescription drugs. The PBMs negotiate discounts with pharmaceutical manufacturers, but those discounts come in the form of confidential rebates that are paid to the PBMs after the drugs are purchased.

PBMs pass most of the rebates on to their clients, but they often keep a slice for themselves.

The PBMs dispute that they are withholding savings from their clients. “While drug manufacturers would have people believe that PBMs are retaining these discounts, virtually all rebates and discounts are passed on to clients,” said Tom Moriarty, executive vice president at CVS Health, in a February speech.

Some analyses show that PBMs actually do help reduce drugs prices.

“PBMs have saved money over the last decade by encouraging use of generics,” says Dr. Walid Gellad, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh.

A report from SSR Health, an investment research firm, says the net prices of brand-name prescription drugs fell 4.8 percent in the last quarter of 2018, even while list prices rose 4 percent. The declines came as pharmacy benefit managers refused to pay for some drugs altogether, opting for a competing brand that offered a better price.

Gellad says that evidence is murky, because the rebate system means that many drugs start at prices that are artificially high.

But critics say the system creates perverse incentives for drugmakers to set high prices for their products so they can offer larger percentage rebates. And they say sometimes PBMs benefit more when patients buy expensive drugs than when they buy cheaper ones.

Now the entire business model is under attack. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in February proposed eliminating the rebate system that underpins the work of companies like CVS Caremark and Express Scripts.

Instead, Azar proposed, the companies would use their market power to negotiate discounts from drugmakers upfront that would be passed on in full to patients.

In comments on HHS’ proposal to get rid of rebates, CVS said drugmakers — not PBMs — are to blame. “Our data show that it is not rebates that are causing drug prices to soar and, in fact, list price is increasing at a faster rate for many drugs with small rebates than for drugs with substantial rebates,” CVS wrote. “The elimination of rebates may not only lead to higher net drug prices, but will undoubtedly lead to higher premiums across the Medicare Part D program.”

Tuesday’s hearing comes six weeks after the leaders of seven pharmaceutical manufacturers appeared before the same committee to defend their pricing practices.

Those CEOs acknowledged that their prices are high for many patients, but they deflected blame onto pharmacy benefit managers.

“We want these rebates, which lower net prices, to benefit patients,” said Olivier Brandicourt, CEO of Sanofi, which makes Lantus, one of the highest priced brands of insulin. Its list price has risen from $244 to $431 since 2013, according to the committee.

“Unfortunately, under the current system, savings from rebates are not consistently passed through to patients in the form of lower deductibles, co-payments or coinsurance amounts,” Brandicourt said in testimony prepared for the hearing.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, who is the ranking member of the Finance Committee, had harsh words for the drug makers at the February hearing.

“I think you and others in the industry are stonewalling on the key issue, which is actually lowering list prices,” he said. “Lowering those list prices is the easiest way for consumers to pay less at the pharmacy counter.”

Grassley is also frustrated.

“The pharmaceutical companies pointed the finger at the PBMs. The PBMs point their finger at the pharmaceuticals. And then both of those are pointing their fingers at the at the health insurance companies,” Grassley said.

“I’m not announcing another hearing,” he continued. “But it might be that if we get this finger-pointing going on all the time, we may want to get those three groups all at the same table to stop the finger-pointing.”

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Felicity Huffman And 12 Other Parents To Plead Guilty In College Cheating Scandal

Federal prosecutors say that one coach and 13 parents, including actress Felicity Huffman, will plead guilty to fraud charges in the college admissions scandal. Huffman is seen here arriving at federal court in Boston last week.

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Thirteen parents and one coach charged in the college admissions scandal will plead guilty, federal prosecutors announced Monday. One of the parents is Felicity Huffman, the actress who is among the best-known of the wealthy individuals arrested in the cheating case that broke last month.

The 14 defendants were charged with one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. They have agreed to plead guilty in accordance with plea agreements.

Authorities charged 50 people in the scheme: parents allegedly paid millions of dollars to have their children’s test scores and athletic achievements falsified to get them into elite colleges such as Yale University and the University of Southern California.

At least two of those colleges, Yale and Stanford University, have since revoked their offers of admission to students involved in the case.

Prosecutors say that plea hearings in the case have not yet been scheduled.

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