Montgomery County is home to tens of thousands of Federal government workers and so the threat of a Federal shutdown feels very close for many residents. For some of our Federal employee families, losing just one paycheck may create a family crisis.
I invited Congressman Jamie Raskin to join me for my weekly media briefing to talk about the situation. He gave some background and an update on the current situation. He explained that all active Federal employees will be paid eventually, even if there is a shutdown. However, that is not true for the many contractors whose livelihoods are intimately connected to the Federal government. As I said at the press briefing, I so appreciate Congressman Raskin’s effort in this moment and generally. He and his staff continue to be great partners in matters large and small.
The worst government shutdown came soon after I first became County Executive in late 2018/early 2019 when 38 percent of the Federal workforce was out of work for more than a month. I remember the stress it put on our residents, businesses and even our own government operation. If a shutdown happens, it is important to note that veterans benefits, healthcare plans and Social Security payments will generally continue uninterrupted, but some additional services from the Veterans Administration and elsewhere may not be available. Other services like customs and air traffic control will continue, but those employees will be working without pay (although they eventually will be reimbursed). Federal employees can get more information from the Office of Personnel Management.
Let’s be clear: a small group of Republicans is responsible for this impasse. Congressman Raskin believes it could be tied to efforts by former President Trump to create chaos and stop Federal investigations against him. The former President remains all too happy to place himself at the center above everyone else.
A shutdown could jeopardize important safety-net programs. As the Agriculture Secretary told the New York Times this week, “If we have a shutdown, WIC shuts down.” WIC stands for Women, Infants and Children and provides healthy food for pregnant and new mothers and children under age 5. In 2021, an average of more than 16,000 children and nearly 13,000 women in Montgomery County participated in WIC. Based on census data estimates, there are more than 65,000 children under age 6 who could be enrolled in WIC. Congressman Raskin and others noted that the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food for low-income families, could quickly run out of funds and also become unavailable. We have multiple food assistance programs and we will do what we can to help out, but we will not be able to replace the Federal resources.
In previous shutdowns, Federal research labs have had to shutter important work, which could impact some of the companies that have made Montgomery County one of the top life sciences hubs in the nation. Congressman Raskin told us that NIH will suspend new clinical trials during a shutdown. These trials lead to important medical advancements and draw people to our area from all over the country looking for hope in their health struggles.
The fight over this shutdown stems from Republican efforts to destroy important Federal programs that make a meaningful difference in peoples’ lives. They are insisting on budget provisions that are indefensible.
One Republican proposal is to cut Title 1 funding by 82 percent. What does that mean for Montgomery County? Our school system currently receives about $51 million in Title I, which goes to 35 of our schools serving our most-impacted students and communities. This funds about 300 teachers and staff in Title I schools, including full-day Head Start programs. Given the children who benefit from this funding, their attack on this is nothing less than a racist cynical maneuver to continue the inequality that is the legacy of slavery.
Slashing Federal funding would cut MCPS’s allocation by $42 million to just $9 million and would reduce the critical supports our Title I schools receive. This money funds Title I summer programing, academic interventions, social emotional supports and other direct services to students.
This is absurd, mean-spirited and bad for the nation.
We hope that saner minds will prevail and convince enough Republicans to do what is right for our country and avoid unnecessary damage to our communities, families and quality of life.
To keep up to date with federal shutdown contingency plan developed by each department, visit this website for details on contingency plans for each department of the government.
Safe Streets Bill Signing
I signed the “Safe Streets Act of 2023” this week. It will add new measures to help protect people on our roads and sidewalks.
So far in 2023, 11 people have been killed on roads across Montgomery County compared to 19 last year. While it is positive that there are fewer as compared to last year, those are still too many. More than 400 pedestrians and cyclists have suffered serious injuries this year.
The bill codifies some current practices, including safety reviews and adjusting walk signs so pedestrians are given a head start on walking before drivers are allowed to go. It also bans right turns at red lights at certain intersections. The law will also require my office to develop a plan to enhance speed camera enforcement, but that will require State legislation.
In addition to signing this bill into law, I also sent over a supplemental budget item to fund the anticipated $1.6 million first-year costs tied to the Safe Streets Act.
It is shocking to see how some people drive today, from blowing through stop signs to speeding around other drivers following the speed limit. The sad thing is, if people would just follow the law and keep safety as the top priority, our government would not have to spend so much of our limited resources on traffic enforcement.
We are expending significant resources to implementing Vision Zero, our pedestrian safety plan. In the end, though, it will take commitment from everyone who uses the road to make them safer for everyone.
The most important thing you can do to help our efforts is to follow the rules of the road, stay away from distracted driving/walking and help us keep you and everyone in your community safe.
For more information on our Safe Streets and Vision Zero efforts, visit www.montgomerycountymd.gov/visionzero.
Gas-Powered Leaf Blower Phaseout
The County Council this week passed Bill 18-22, Noise Control – Leaf Removal Equipment, which will phase out the sale and use of gas-powered leaf blowers and leaf vacuums. Gas-powered leaf blowers will not be permitted to be sold in the County beginning in July 2024, and their use will not be permitted beginning in July of 2025.
I proposed this bill more than a year ago and I appreciate the Council’s near unanimous support (the bill was approved by a 10-1 vote).
This law is important because we need to acknowledge and address the negative impacts of gas-powered leaf blowers. The transitioning away from gas-powered leaf blowers is beneficial for our communities and helps protect workers. The new regulations will limit noise from leaf blowers and vacuums to 70 decibels at a distance of 50 feet.
I want to thank the many residents who advocated tirelessly for this legislation. We had more than 7,000 residents petition us for this legislation.
The law also authorizes a rebate program to partially offset the cost of replacing gas-powered leaf blowers or leaf vacuums with electric alternatives. Agricultural producers will be exempt from the law and not required to replace their equipment. Our Department of Environmental Protection is developing the rebate program. As part of that process, DEP will engage with local businesses, industry and community members. The rebate program will be presented to the Council for its review and approval by next March. We will keep you updated on the progress of implementing this legislation.
Drug Affordability Update
The rising cost of prescription drugs continues to be a burden on many families here in Montgomery County, across Maryland and the nation. In fact, just in the last two years with record inflation, prices for more than 1,200 drugs increased above inflation. Unless we do something, those prices will continue to skyrocket. This is why I have been working with advocates to put measures in place to bring down the cost of these essential medicines.
On Tuesday, I joined Maryland State Senator Ben Kramer and Delegates Bonnie Cullison, Charlotte Crutchfield and Vaughn Stewart at Leisure World for an update on the Prescription Drug Affordability Board. I supported the creation of this board. Maryland is ahead of the curve nationally on implementing this new model of regulation.
Despite our success of creating a board, we still have work to do to give it more power and the ability to better regulate the prescription drug market in our State. As other states see how our efforts are working, they can be inspired to create their own boards and join the fight.
The week’s meeting at Leisure World was organized by the Maryland Health Care for All coalition. This discussion reminded me of the impact drug price increases and healthcare company disputes have on families.
One woman who was diagnosed with diabetes said that her insurance company no longer covered a glucose monitoring technology that is now costing her $80 per month. Many of our residents who need these drugs the most also are most likely to be on fixed incomes, such as our older adult population. We know one-in-three Marylanders report not taking their medication as prescribed because they are too expensive.
Pricey drugs are also driving up insurance premiums overall. And that affects operating costs for both businesses in the private sector and for the public sector.
Negotiated prices by Medicare on drugs will not take effect for another three years, but we can apply pressure now to help those struggling with expensive medications. We need to continue to push more aggressive legislation from the State General Assembly and at the Federal level.
These drug companies are getting away with focusing more on the bottom-line of their shareholders as compared to focusing on healing and improving peoples’ health. Exploiting those who are sick and in need of their medicines ought to be criminal behavior.
In Maryland, our goal is to expand the authority of this board to cover everybody, not just State and local government employees. This coalition is going to make this a priority during the upcoming session, and I will join them. Besides helping those in need, we also must regulate big pharmaceutical companies limiting excessive profits. Drug companies will not be driven out of business, and no one is talking about preventing corporations from profiting, but greed helped fuel our nation’s opioid crisis. Greed is not good for anyone’s health.
We have been fighting this battle too long. It is moving too slowly, and it is time to stop accepting the status quo. For low-income people, people on limited and fixed incomes, like Social Security, their ability to purchase drugs never rises with inflation, much less the inflated drug prices some companies expect everyone to pay.
If you would like to help join the fight to end inequalities in prescription medicine, go to the Maryland Health Care for All website and take action by supporting the Prescription Drug Affordability Resolution.
Community Health Update
New COVID-19 vaccines have started to arrive in our area, including our first shipment to the County’s Department of Health and Human Services. Shots are recommended for all adults and children older than 6 months, even for those who have never received a COVID-19 vaccine before.
Unlike the first several rounds of vacinations, local governments will be getting limited supplies of vaccine that will be earmarked for those who are uninsured. Find out what local pharmacies and retailers are offering vaccinations at vaccines.gov or by calling 1-800-232-0233. Getting an appointment will take some patience. You should also check with your regular pharmacy or health care provider as many are receiving vaccines as well, in case they are not listed on the government website.
Vaccines should be covered by your health insurance, but be sure to check on the specifics of your coverage. Some plans, such as Kaiser Permanente, require policy holders to get vaccinated at a Kaiser facility. I also want to encourage everyone to take advantage of the returning government program to receive free COVID-19 test kits through the mail. Order those by visiting covid.gov/tests.
We will continue to provide test kits at libraries, but we recommend you check with your library first because we are seeing a lot of demand for the kits. There are times when a specific branch runs out of test kits. We will continue to request more test kits through the Maryland Department of Health. An order was just made this week.
As far as this week’s cases count, transmission levels and hospitalizations are not much different than last week. We continue to be in the “low” community transmission category. However, as we have clearly seen over the last several years, when we transition to more indoor activities because of cooler weather cases, tend to go up.
Please get this new booster and an annual flu shot as well. If you are 60 and older or have a compromised immune system, getting the RSV vaccine is also recommended.