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From Accidental to Transformational: An Interview with Pete Stark, Former Chair of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Heath Care

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If you could define Pete Stark in one word, it would be accidental. According to Mr. Stark’s autobiography from his personal website, from being born eight months after his parents married to flunking out of MIT (and promptly returning) to becoming a hippie at the University of California, Berkeley, Mr. Stark has a fascinating background that relates him to many types of individuals, and which has well-equipped him for his 40-year tenure as a House Democrat in California from 1973 to 2013 During this time, Mr. Stark became very involved in health care reform and as John Rother—head of the National Coalition on Health Care—says, he was “part of almost every piece of health legislation that’s been enacted, including the Affordable Care Act.” Ultimately, Mr. Stark created a benchmark for progressive health policy that continues to shape the American health care system today.


How did you come to be a politician?

I was in business for 20 years before I ever went into politics. Someone asked me to run, and…so I ran. I was opposed to the war, which was my push for politics. That’s why I got in. I was into politics since my freshman year in college—I ran for Secretary Treasurer of my freshman class (there was no president)…you know, that kind of stuff.

I wanted to become a delegate for the California State Convention, and that’s when I found out I had to become a Democrat. So I went straight down to the registry and changed my party. Winning the Democratic primary in 1972 was the beginning of my 40 years as a politician.


How can we become more involved in health care policy?

There will be plenty of work to do to get people into the new system (established by the Affordable Health Care Act)—people to explain the program to seniors, people to enforce the laws, etc. It’s very interesting and challenging work—social service work.

Particularly, we need people to expand the service to young children [in order to] see that they get attention and medical care, and that they are surveyed for those who need mental health care. We are way behind other parts of the world in providing these kinds of services. There is a huge opportunity in that field for individuals who do not necessarily plan on becoming nurses or doctors.


Can you elaborate on your experience as Chair of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on health care?

Basically, it is a subcommittee that runs Medicare, so that was my first experience in legislating in the health care area back in 1983. A bit about the Medicare Program: Medicare pays out about 98 cents of every dollar of premium to every medical service. It has only about a 2% overhead. In contrast, most private companies barely pay out two-thirds of every dollar, which is only about 66% that Blue Cross, for example, pays out; the rest goes to advertising, stock dividends, etc. In short, Medicare is far more economic.

I served as the Democratic chairman on the committee from 1983 to 2012. Since seniors had priority for choosing committees, I was ‘senior enough’ to pick that committee, and wrote most of the federal legislation on health care. I probably have written all the major health care legislation in the last 30 years. One such law—EMTALA (the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act)—requires that when individuals go to the emergency room, doctors must treat them regardless if whether they have insurance and can pay or not, and cannot turn them down unless they are in a stabilized condition to leave. Another law—the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (I just call it the Parity law)—requires that any insurance plan that covers physical insurance has to cover mental health care as well. The Anti-Kickback Law states that your primary care doctor cannot refer you to a hospital and then get a bonus from the hospital or another doctor. I also wrote the Affordable Care Act back in the 80’s, which is a long and complex piece of legislation that deals with universal health care. It makes sure you cannot be denied health care, that children can be covered under their parents’ insurance until they are 26 years old, things like that.

Besides writing laws, the committee had what you call oversight in which we were like the Board of directors of the Medicare system. We would bring in administration—doctors, nurses, etc.—[to] the Medicare program and question them on their roles—make sure they were doing their job.


In what direction do you expect health care policy to move in the next few years?

I expect [universal healthcare] to move toward Medicare and that in 10 years, everyone in the United States will have medical care. We are the only ones where it is still a privilege and not a right. Later, the United States will become like other civilized nations and have universal health care.


Is it true that you are an atheist politician?

There was some group interested in the separation of church and state. They offered a prize for anyone who could name the two highest-ranking politicians who did not believe in God. I was listed as one, and the other was another individual of the Berkeley Council. And then they called me and asked if I would mind it they said that publicly. That was about it. I just never believed in a supreme being and I just had never been religious in the traditional Christian or Judaic sense.


Since leaving office in 2012, what are your future plans?

I am too old to run for president. I’ll probably just work for the Democratic party in any way that I can help. I am going to have to figure out how to enjoy retirement!


— Claudia See
Claudia See is a freshman in Davenport College at Yale University.

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  • Published: 3 years ago on December 9, 2013
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