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Saying that it would be detrimental to Americans for Alex Azar to be secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), more than 60 organizations today urged senators not to confirm him.
In a letter, the groups - representing patients, health care providers, public health experts, women, people of color, workers, consumers and people of faith - said they are deeply concerned by statements made by Azar as well as his record at the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and Company.
"We believe that elevating Mr. Azar to Secretary of HHS would be detrimental to Americans' access to quality, affordable health care across the country," the letter said.
The groups oppose Azar because:
* He has denounced the Affordable Care Act (ACA) even though it expanded health insurance coverage and access to health care services for millions of Americans.
* Azar has spoken in favor of converting Medicaid funding into block grants, which would end guaranteed coverage and cap federal funding of program costs without regard for program needs, thereby threatening the services on which millions of Americans depend.
* Azar has said that he does not believe the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA has been successful. However, the evidence shows the contrary; states that expanded their Medicaid programs under the ACA have experienced large reductions in uninsured rates and have seen reduced disparities in coverage by income, age and race/ethnicity.
* Azar will not commit to supporting mandatory no-cost-sharing contraceptive coverage by insurers. Access to contraception without charge ensures that costs do not prevent access to important preventative care, reducing unintended pregnancies that can lead to adverse maternal and child health outcomes.
* Azar's record at Eli Lilly raises doubts about his willingness and ability to serve the needs of U.S. patients and consumers. While Azar was president of Lilly USA, Eli Lilly's U.S. affiliate, its insulin skyrocketed from $74 to $269. As a result, patients have skipped refills, injected expired insulin and starved themselves in ineffective attempts to control blood sugar levels.
* Eli Lilly is facing multiple class-action lawsuits alleging violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and numerous state fraud, unfair trade practices and consumer protection laws related to the company raising insulin prices in lockstep with Novo Nordisk and Sanofi. Eli Lilly is also facing a suit brought by the federal government and 31 states alleging False Claims Act violations involving a scheme to boost insulin sales, as well as investigations by at least five state attorneys general.
"At a time when our country is facing a crisis of access to affordable medicines, we need an untainted and credible advocate for patients and our health care system," the groups wrote. "A former prescription drug company executive with a history of spiking the prices of lifesaving medicines simply is unqualified to address the needs of our national health care system. ... the health care of all Americans requires a [S]ecretary of HHS who puts the public above profits and who champions evidence-based approaches over ideology."
Public Citizen is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that champions the public interest in the halls of power. We defend democracy, resist corporate power and work to ensure that government works for the people - not for big corporations. Founded in 1971, we now have 500,000 members and supporters throughout the country.(202) 588-1000
"Should this become law, it will cause irreparable damage to the student loan system and undermine Americans’ trust in their government," warned the head of the Student Borrower Protection Center.
Advocates of student debt relief on Wednesday blasted Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives for passing a resolution that critics said showcases "their contempt for workers and families" who are burdened by loans taken out to access higher education.
H.J. Res. 45 is a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution, which U.S. lawmakers can use to overturn federal regulations. The measure passed the House in a 218-203 vote mostly along party lines; Democratic Reps. Jared Golden (Maine) and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (Wash.) were the only members of their party to join Republicans in supporting it.
The resolution is unlikely to go anywhere in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and even if it did, the White House has already made clear that President Joe Biden would veto it. The GOP measure—a clear message to voters ahead of the 2024 elections—would block Biden's pending student debt cancellation plan and reverse already-delivered relief.
\u201cThis harmful and regressive action, which passed on a slim margin, not only undermines the significant progress made in addressing the #studentdebtcrisis but also disregards the ongoing struggles of families enduring the economic aftermath caused by the #COVID19 pandemic.\u201d— Student Debt Crisis Center (SDCC) (@Student Debt Crisis Center (SDCC)) 1684966787
As Common Dreamsreported Tuesday, the American Federation of Teachers and the Student Borrower Protection Center (SBPC) released a report detailing the "ruinous impact" the resolution would have on millions of borrowers.
"The record is clear: The damage caused by this cruel and reckless legislation will hurt working people, including millions of its right-wing supporters' own constituents," SBPC executive director Mike Pierce declared after the vote.
Pierce noted that "right-wing proponents have gone to great lengths to mislead their own colleagues and deny the truth—this effort would push hundreds of thousands of public service workers back into debt and require the government to charge tens of millions [of] borrowers for interest that has already been canceled."
"Should this become law, it will cause irreparable damage to the student loan system and undermine Americans' trust in their government," he warned. "This is exactly what extreme conservative lawmakers want, they are just afraid to say it."
SBPC and 260 other groups also criticized the resolution's supporters in a letter to congressional leaders earlier this month, charging that "policymakers now seeking to reverse such critical relief through the CRA are ignoring the economic needs of their own constituents and threatening our nation's financial security."
"Congress should be acting to improve the circumstances of the American people," the coalition argued, "not attempting to thwart the president's efforts to ease the financial pressure that so many are feeling."
\u201cHouse Republicans just voted to throw 260K public servants back into debt & force 36 million Americans to immediately pay back months of paused student loans. They would rather give tax breaks to giant corporations than help families crushed by debt. I\u2019ll continue to fight this.\u201d— Elizabeth Warren (@Elizabeth Warren) 1684964518
Another letter signatory, the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL), called out the GOP-led effort just ahead of the vote Wednesday.
"This is yet another political stunt from some members of Congress to prevent tens of millions of borrowers, including low-wealth individuals, service members, public service workers, women, and people of color from receiving relief ahead of the Supreme Court's decision regarding the fate of student debt cancellation, said Jaylon Herbin, CRL's director of federal campaigns.
Herbin warned that "resuming the payment pause without student loan forgiveness, let alone requiring students to retroactively pay months' worth of student loan payments, will add thousands of dollars into the average borrower's loan balance, lead millions into forbearance and default, and contribute to a widening racial wealth gap.”
"These actions are not only irresponsible but demonstrate a genuine lack of concern for the nation's overall economic health and the financial well-being of millions of U.S. individuals and families," he added.
The House vote came not only as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a pair of right-wing challenges to Biden's debt relief plan, but also as congressional Republicans threaten to blow up the economy by refusing to raise the debt limit unless Democratic lawmakers and the president agree to spending cuts that would harm working people.
"It's time that the steel industry take the growing need and demand for fossil-free steel seriously," said one advocate.
Progressive organizers on Wednesday urged steelmakers to swiftly adopt the clean manufacturing methods needed to achieve a shift from coal-based steel to "green steel."
At the Great Designs in Steel conference held in a Detroit suburb, Public Citizen and Mighty Earth activists used a series of digital ads and mobile billboards to call on industry insiders and automotive executives to accelerate the nascent transition from dirty to clean steel by fully embracing low- to zero-carbon production processes—one of many changes that scientists say are necessary to avert the worst consequences of the fossil fuel-driven climate crisis.
"Steel manufacturing remains one of the most energy-intensive and polluting aspects of making a vehicle, but there are solutions to clean it up," Erika Thi Patterson, supply chain campaigns director at Public Citizen, said in a statement. "As companies and governments work to meet net-zero climate commitments, it's time that the steel industry take the growing need and demand for fossil-free steel seriously and embrace the cleaner technologies that exist today."
"Insiders at this conference," Patterson continued, "need to recognize the inevitability of green transportation and move in that direction quickly and forcefully."
"It's time steelmakers ditch the dirty blast furnaces of the past and invest in fossil-free steel today for the health and future of our climate, communities, and steel producers' viability and own financial health."
At the conference venue, mobile billboards denounced steelmaker Cleveland-Cliffs Inc.'s recent announcement that it plans to stick with coal-powered blast furnaces in the near term. Rival company U.S. Steel, by contrast, is ramping up the use of lower-emission electric arc furnaces at its mini-mills.
Billboards with the message, "Cleveland-Cliffs: Ditch the past, embrace the Green Steel future!" circled the venue for the duration of the meeting.
"As a sponsor of the Great Designs in Steel conference, Cleveland-Cliffs must end its commitment to dirty blast furnaces that release significant climate and health-harming pollution," said Matthew Groch, senior director for decarbonization at Mighty Earth. "Instead of embracing the future and investing in low-carbon steel production, Cliffs has doubled down on blast furnaces, announcing plans to reline a blast furnace at its Burns Harbor, Indiana facility, extending the plant's life by an estimated 18 years."
"As the auto industry works to decarbonize its steel supply chain," said Groch, "Cleveland-Cliffs' dirty steelmaking locks the company into high-emission technologies for decades."
As The Times of Northwest Indianareported recently:
Blast furnaces used to be the primary method of steelmaking in the United States. But they have lost much of their business over the last several decades to mini-mills, which are cheaper to operate, often located in southern and rural areas, and usually not unionized, cutting down on steelmakers' labor costs by paying workers lower wages.
Mini-mills now account for an estimated 70% of domestic steel production, according to the Steel Manufacturers Association. As the long-vacant merchant mills at Gary Works attest, mini-mills have long since seized entire segments of the market like rebar for construction.
But integrated steelmaking has persisted, largely because new steel is needed to serve automakers and other industries that demand stronger and higher-quality steel products.
However, according to Public Citizen's newly launched FAQ webpage on the subject, clean manufacturing techniques are capable of delivering the higher-grade steel required by electric vehicle (EV) makers.
"Green primary steel is produced from iron ore without coal or other fossil fuels," the webpage states. "A proven method of ironmaking known as direct reduced iron (DRI) can be powered by green hydrogen to produce fossil-free steel."
"Automotive-grade steel has certain properties, including low levels of residual elements like copper and nickel, which affect mechanical performance," the webpage continues. "These impurities are difficult to remove through simple metallurgical processes, but direct reduced iron (DRI) facilities can produce green automotive-grade steel with even lower levels of residual elements than blast furnace steel."
"Fossil-free steel is possible today," it adds. "Facilities using this technology are currently under construction in Europe. Still, the U.S. has no new facilities in the works [or] plans for new facilities, and current DRI plants are reliant on methane gas."
The webpage laments that "even though steelmaking can be decarbonized by using cleaner, more sustainable technologies, most new (primary) steel is still made using 14th-century blast furnace technology that burns coal, harming our health and climate."
"In the United States, eight remaining integrated steel mills burn massive amounts of coke made from coal in blast furnaces to make iron and steel," according to Public Citizen. "Each steel mill emits roughly as much carbon dioxide as a coal-fired power plant."
"As more and more countries and steel buyers seek to reduce their emissions, blast furnaces could become obsolete in the coming years, leaving the steel industry with stranded assets worth between $345 billion and $518 billion."
The toxic pollution, such as heavy metals and particulate matter, that blast furnaces spew into nearby areas "has been linked to serious harms for people including premature death, and increased rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, lower respiratory tract infections, cardiac disease, and cancer," the progressive advocacy group notes. "Because steel mills have historically been built in or adjacent to low-income communities and communities of color, these communities have borne the brunt of the health hazards related to steel mill air pollution and water contamination."
"With the introduction of new policies like the Inflation Reduction Act and other public investments in decarbonization across the globe, building new blast furnaces or extending the life of existing ones is a misguided move," the webpage points out. "Market demand for green steel is rising. Steelmakers can gain a competitive edge by investing in green steel today."
Moreover, it warns that "as more and more countries and steel buyers seek to reduce their emissions, blast furnaces could become obsolete in the coming years, leaving the steel industry with stranded assets worth between $345 billion and $518 billion."
Wednesday's action at the Great Designs in Steel conference comes on the heels of the launch of the 'Lead the Charge' campaign, of which Public Citizen and Mighty Earth are members. To help achieve its goal of ensuring that EVs "aren't manufactured in a way that harms people and the planet," the campaign maintains a scorecard that tracks human rights and environmental issues throughout the EV supply chain.
As of March, just two automakers had set goals for the use of fossil-free steel, the campaign found.
"It's time steelmakers ditch the dirty blast furnaces of the past and invest in fossil-free steel today for the health and future of our climate, communities, and steel producers' viability and own financial health," says Public Citizen's new webpage.
To expedite the green steel transition, the group advocates for the following:
As for the lower union density found in the steel industry's mini-mills compared with its few remaining merchant mills, there's no reason why lawmakers couldn't enact policies to turn the shift to green steel into a win-win opportunity to boost unionization.
Notably, the United Auto Workers is currently withholding its endorsement of U.S. President Joe Biden in the early stages of the 2024 race in an attempt to secure concessions that would make the EV transition a just one for labor.
"One parent could get my poetry banned from classrooms. And yet one country can't ban assault rifles from massacring them," noted Gorman, who recited her poem, The Hill We Climb, at President Joe Biden's inauguration.
Amanda Gorman, the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate, reacted Tuesday after a South Florida school banned elementary students from reading the poem she recited at President Joe Biden's 2021 inauguration following the complaint of a parent who has repeatedly espoused white supremacist and anti-Jewish views.
"I'm gutted," Gorman said in a statement posted on Twitter. "Because of one parent's complaint, my inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb, has been banned from an elementary school in Miami-Dade County, Florida."
"Book bans aren't new," she continued, "but they have been on the rise—according to the [American Library Association], 40% more books were challenged in 2022 compared to 2021."
"The majority of these censored works are by queer and non-white voices."
Common Dreamsreported last month that laws passed in Republican-controlled states have led to nearly 1,500 book bans nationwide during just the first half of the 2022-23 school year. This followed a record number of book bans last year, according to the American Library Association.
"What's more, often all it takes to remove these works from our libraries and schools is a single objection," Gorman added. "And let's be clear: Most of the forbidden works are by authors who have struggled for generations to get on bookshelves. The majority of these censored works are by queer and nonwhite voices."
\u201cSo they ban my book from young readers, confuse me with @oprah , fail to specify what parts of my poetry they object to, refuse to read any reviews, and offer no alternatives\u2026Unnecessary #bookbans like these are on the rise, and we must fight back \ud83d\udc4a\ud83c\udfff DONATE here:\u2026\u201d— Amanda Gorman (@Amanda Gorman) 1684879662
While Gorman's poem can still be read by sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders at Bob Graham Education Center in Miami Lakes, students in grades K-5 are barred from reading or reciting the widely acclaimed work, which promotes unity, reflection on the past, and hope for the future of the United States.
The restriction was enacted after Daily Salinas, a mother of two students at the school, lodged a complaint challenging five works—Gorman's poem, plus The ABCs of Black History, Cuban Kids, Countries in the News Cuba, and Love to Langston—over what she claimed are references to critical race theory, "indirect hate messages," gender ideology, and indoctrination.
\u201cThe Hill We Climb is making headlines, but please don\u2019t forget there are three other titles - titles clearly written for elementary school readers - that are restricted too.\n\nWe need to get The ABCs of Black History, Love to Langston, & Cuban Kids back on K-5 shelves too!\u201d— Florida Freedom to Read Project (@Florida Freedom to Read Project) 1684953943
"One parent could get my poetry banned from classrooms. And yet one country can't ban assault rifles from massacring them," Gorman noted on Twitter.
In her complaint, Salinas—who erroneously attributed Gorman's poem to "Oprah Winfrey"—objected to pages containing two passages of The Hill We Climb.
\u201cThese are the pages of my inaugural poem that an objecting parent cited as "not educational and have indirectly hate messages". And now because of that one complaint, my poem is now banned for elementary school students at a school in @MiamiDadeCounty.\u201d— Amanda Gorman (@Amanda Gorman) 1684881016
In a Monday interview with the Miami Herald, Salinas insisted she "is not for eliminating or censoring any books," but wants materials to be age-appropriate and for students "to know the truth" about Cuba—a socialist dictatorship with a higher literacy rate than the United States.
The Herald made no mention of Salinas' ties to far-right and white supremacist groups. A Twitter thread posted Tuesday by Miami Against Fascism shows Salinas rallying with the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist group that promotes and perpetrates political violence, and Christopher Monzon, who allegedly assaulted anti-racist counterprotesters at the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
\u201cBut there\u2019s more\u2026 \n\nMiami book banning parent Daily Salinas also attended a Proud Boy organized rally in Hialeah in November 2022 in support of white supremacist Marco Rubio canvasser Christopher Monzon, who falsely claimed he was beaten for political reasons. 5/\u201d— Miami Against Fascism \ud83c\udf34\u2615\ufe0f (@Miami Against Fascism \ud83c\udf34\u2615\ufe0f) 1684867001
Miami Against Fascism also posted video showing Salinas and members of the far-right group Moms for Liberty—a Florida-based pressure group sometimes referred to as "Klanned Karenhood" for its crusade ban books in schools across the United States—interrupting a July 2022 Miami school board meeting.
Salinas also shared social media posts promoting white supremacist and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, including Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
\u201cSo the parent who got my inaugural poem The Hill We Climb banned for elementary students @BGEC_Bobcats has ties to WHITE SUPREMACIST ORGS. Anyone surprised?@MiamiDadeCounty This is a shame for the children in your school system who deserve to have access to poetry.\u201d— Amanda Gorman (@Amanda Gorman) 1684884414
The Miami Lakes school's restriction of Gorman's poem comes amid relentless attacks by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—who on Wednesday officially declared his candidacy for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination—and other GOP state officials on educational freedom from kindergarten through the university level.
DeSantis has replaced key state education officials with right-wing allies who toe his "anti-woke" line, and has been accused of stoking a climate of fear in which educators have removed books from classroom libraries to avoid running afoul of bans on titles dealing with race or LGBTQ+ issues.
Notable figures who rushed to defend Gorman include Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, a Democrat, who invited the 25-year-old poet to recite The Hill We Climb before a public audience, and the ACLU, which tweeted: "Schools should be fostering growth and the exchange of ideas—not preventing students from learning and understanding different perspectives."
"These unnecessary book bans join a host of other attempts to silence us," the civil liberties group added. "We must fight back."
\u201cThe poem that Amanda Gorman read at President Biden\u2019s inauguration, entitled \u201cThe Hill We Climb,\u201d has been banned in schools. The poem was a lecture on peace, love, unity, and freedom. This isn\u2019t free speech. Don\u2019t skip this without leaving a heart for her.\u201d— Mohamad Safa (@Mohamad Safa) 1684872214
In her statement Tuesday, Gorman explained that "I wrote The Hill We Climb so that all young people could see themselves in a historical moment."
"Ever since, I've received countless letters and videos from children inspired by The Hill We Climb to write their own poems," she said. "Robbing children of the chance to find their voices in literature is a violation of their right to free thought and free speech."
"What can we do? We must speak out and have our voices heard," Gorman stressed. "That's why my publisher, Penguin Random House, joined PEN America, authors, and community members in a lawsuit in Florida's Escambia County to challenge book restrictions like these."
"Together this is a hill we won't just climb, but a hill we will conquer."
"Together this is a hill we won't just climb, but a hill we will conquer," Gorman asserted.
Gorman was referring to a lawsuit filed last week claiming Escambia County School Board book bans are unconstitutional.
"It's quite apparent what [book bans] are about: It's an effort to erase certain segments of our population, to marginalize particular stories, to prevent kids from seeing themselves in the books they find on the shelf," PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said during an interview on MSNBC last week.