Rep. Frank LoBiondo on Immigration, Veterans, Trump, Health Care, More

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Rep. Frank LoBiondo speaks with SNJ Today's Mike Epifanio in Millville. 

MILLVILLE, N.J. — One of our long-time voices in Washington DC, New Jersey Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd District) visited the SNJ Today offices on Monday, September 18, for an interview with SNJ Today’s Mike Epifanio to discuss the latest national topics and their impact on the South Jersey region.

In the intimate and candid interview—segments of which appear here, read or watch the whole video on our website—LoBiondo discussed immigration, including its relation to Cumberland County’s agriculture-heavy economy, a new Veterans facility in Vineland, President Donald Trump’s recent decision to end the DACA program, and other national matters in relation to South Jersey. 

Since we spoke with you last year, President Trump has been elected and his administration has resulted in a much different vibe in Washington, D.C. What is your impression of the atmosphere since January?

It hasn’t been just different for me in Washington, it’s been different for the world and the country. President Trump has got obviously a very different style. [He’s] an individual that did not hold political office before. Someone who is very successful in a personal business. And in a personal business, I remember from my days, you have a problem, you make a decision, you give a directive, it’s done. You don’t have to go to a House and Senate to get a law passed to do it.

So, Mr. Trump has seen a number of issues that cry out for reform, for change, for something being done. And I think he’s had a high degree of frustration, because the House and the Senate has not been able to get together, [and] there are a wide variety of reasons why that’s the case, but on a lot of things I strongly agree with President Trump and what he’s doing — national defense, what we’re doing with our intelligence agencies, what we’re doing with infrastructure. The tax reform, I’m very anxious to see what the provisions are; I think the nation desperately needs it. We have the highest corporate tax rate in the entire world. It’s keeping trillions of dollars offshore, because if a company is making money overseas, they’re not bringing it back because of the 35-percent tax rate.

So what would it mean if all of a sudden, those companies were starting to bring the big sums of money back here? I think it’s more investment here, it’s more jobs here. But the president is working through a lot of these things, and we’ll have to stay focused because what the country wants are results. They don’t want to hear that it’s a Republican idea or a Democrat idea, they want us to move forward. They want to see us be able to have the government stay open, not to default on our debts, they want to see the military stay strong, they want to see the country protected from terrorism, they want to see an infrastructure package where roads and bridges that are really in bad shape are going to be able to be improved.

So all of these are really good opportunities for us. You’ve been very vocal in your opposition to the Affordable Healthcare Act. When Republicans had the recent opportunity to repeal and replace, the votes weren’t there and you indicated you would not support the healthcare proposal that was on the table at the time. Where does that leave us? It’s a critically important topic for the entire nation.

And I think it’s important to think back on how the law was first put into place, and what happened in the initial years. I think that anything that’s done that’s really big in this country — if it’s immigration, if it’s healthcare, if it’s tax reform, if it’s social security — it should be done in a bipartisan way.

President Obama decided that was not going to be the case. He eliminated Republicans from part of the debate and the discussion. He really sort of forced a square peg in a round hole. ... As it was set up, it was almost set up with — almost, in retrospect, to fail.

It had 111 boards and commissions, it was taking decision making for healthcare out of the hands of the doctor, the family and the patient and putting it in the hands of some bureaucrats somewhere, so it was clear to me at the time after meeting with healthcare professionals that it would not be a good deal, and in the initial years of passage it was pretty clear if we found a way to repeal it, that we would be much better before this piece of legislation became entrenched in everything.

Well, seven years later it’s very difficult. Mr. Trump did promise that. President Trump also promised that it would be as good or better than we have now, so if we take New Jersey, which was a Medicaid expansion state, which meant that large numbers of people qualified to be on Medicaid that had not previously, but they’re people that are relying on the program now. And certain cases are being provided prescriptions and drugs that keep them alive. They could be a diabetes patient, or a cancer patient, or an MS patient, and what the House of Representatives came up with did not met the promise as ‘good or better’ than what we currently had.

So it was a problem for me, especially Cumberland County, my home county. Cumberland County has an excess of 30 percent on Medicaid, as a couple of other counties are. How do we go to these people who are relying on this program and say, we’re just going to take you off of it. We don’t have a replacement for you. We’re going to give some kind of an incentive that won’t come close to giving you the opportunity to have the coverage that you have now.

So there’s a dilemma because Obamacare if failing. We have states where there are triple digit premium increases. We have insurance providers that are pulling out of not just counties but entire states. So within a short period of time, I don’t know whether it’s three months, six months, twelve months, something is really going to have to be done because this can’t be sustained. The thing will be upside down. Whose responsibility is it to draft that replacement legislation?

The House of Representatives had a very difficult task, because the Freedom Caucus that had a lot to say with how we would deal with health-care, they wanted to repeal with no replacement. In fact they’re still advocating that. What faith do people have that Congress is going to repeal the current health-care law and at some future date to be determined is going to come up with a replacement that’s going to work for them?

There’s no confidence in that at all, no confidence for me. So what were we presented with? We were presented with options that just were not going to work for places like New Jersey. Now maybe there’d be some states that would be OK, that that would work for, but I’m concerned about the 2nd congressional district, and I’m concerned about New Jersey.

So when the House of Representatives passed their legislation with a lot of controversy, and I’ve had hundreds of meeting with health-care professionals and individual constituents, and our health-care providers were very loudly and unanimously against the proposal that came out of the house of representatives — doctors, nurses, hospitals, etc.

But it did pass, and it moved over to the Senate. We all know there was high drama with the Senate. We all know they just could not get to a vote to proceed.

And [the latest proposal] by Senator Graham of South Carolina and Senator Cassidy from Louisiana to see if they can come up with [a bill] that gets the Senate to do something. Now if the Senate were to pass a bill, it would move to a conference committee between the House and the Senate, and maybe the President, with his new spirit of bipartisanship, would be able to find a way to get everybody together to present a program that would make sense and would cover people in a sensible way?

The federal administration stance on immigration directly affects the agricultural economy of the South Jersey region. In the past, you have suggested a guest worker program so that farmers in the area can continue to operate and provide the bounty South Jersey is known for. Is that something that you think would have any traction with your colleagues on the Hill?

Well, it has a lot of traction in the bipartisan way, especially from states that are dependent on non-mechanized harvesting, which we are. And we have looked at this for years and years. Our farmers and nurserymen have suffered because of the inability to be able to actually attract the workers that they need to do the job with harvesting or just the farming issue itself. 

The problem comes in, in that there’s a group—members of Congress, House and Senate—who want to see a total package, everything from A to Z. So, comprehensive immigration reform—use whatever terminology you want—that holds back some key programs like the guest worker program, which Canada has a model that has worked extremely well from everything that I’ve been able to see. The government’s involved in it, and it gives the opportunity for some stability in this particular area. 

So, a number of states [have an interest]. [But] the Farm Bureau has been a problem because the American Farm Bureau, in my view, has been pretty much dominated by the heavily mechanized grain states. So, they don’t rely on guest workers to harvest the grain and the corn and the soybeans. It’s all done mechanized, so they didn’t see a need to get involved in this program and weigh in and, if you will, use chips. So, we’re still struggling with this. We now have, obviously, a new administration, which we have indications [is] taking a fresh look at everything.

While we’re on the topic of immigration, now that Democratic leadership and President Trump appear to be working together on DACA legislation, it would appear “Dreamers”—or children of illegal immigrants—may be permitted to stay in the country. Would you support such legislation?

Totally. These are kids that were brought here at a very young age. A lot of estimates are they were four, five, and six-years-old, and that was something like 15 or 20 years ago. This is the only country that they’ve ever known. If they were sent back to a country of origin, they may not even speak the language at this point in time. And the idea of rounding up 800,000 to 900,000 or a million of these kids—and we’re calling them kids, these children—doesn’t make any sense. Now, what are the particulars of how this works? President Obama attempted to do it by Executive Order. That was wrong. It was unconstitutional. President Trump recognized that. He ruffled a lot of feathers by saying, ‘Congress, do your job,’ but he was absolutely right. Now we have into the mix the Senate minority leader and the minority leader in the House, Mr. [Chuck] Schumer and Miss [Nancy] Pelosi, and it looks like there is the framework. We don’t have the particulars but it looks like it’s a framework. I would very much look forward to supporting something that brings this into legal status and takes care of this problem and gets it off the table.

You’ve been a supporter of veterans for many years and were outspoken about the shortcomings of the Veterans Administration when we last spoke. Under the Trump Administration, have there been changes to that agency.  A new, expanded Veteran’s clinic opened in Vineland last year…

Well, this is the mission that will never end because no matter what we do, no matter how much we’re able to do for our veterans, there’s still going to be more to do, do it in a more efficient way, do it in a better way, to honor their service to our country and the promises that our country made to them. 

Unfortunately, with successive administrations, grand promises have been made of how our veterans would be treated for them only to be disappointed, let down, and in fact worse—some cases, criminally treated as we saw recently with some of the major VA facilities, particularly in Phoenix, AZ, which had a double list, trying to pretend that they were giving veterans the service and the appointments when they needed them when actually, they were not doing that at all. And these people were then being rewarded with bonuses. They should have been held accountable. They were not held accountable, and a previous administration had an opportunity to do that and chose not to. 

[With the] new administration, I’m particularly pleased that President Trump picked Dr. [David] Shulkin to be the Secretary of the VA. Dr. Shulkin was No. 2 and, under unfortunate circumstances, I had an opportunity to meet with him directly. That’s when we had the tragic situation with Charles Ingram at the Northfield Clinic when he committed suicide, but that was the opportunity for me to hammer home to the VA leadership, that is Dr. Shulkin and the leadership in Washington, that we were treated very poorly, our veterans were being treated very poorly, [especially in] the way Wilmington was making decisions for our veterans. The clinic opened in Northfield a number of years ago. It was wrong the day it opened. It was understaffed the day it opened. The telephones didn’t work the day that it opened. We complained about this. Wilmington leadership always had an answer that they gave to Washington, which always superseded what my demands and concerns were. 

With the tragic incident with Charles Ingram, it changed everything. Dr. Shulkin finally recognized that Wilmington leadership was lying about what they were doing and how they were doing it. 

That was a little dicey for a while because it was a pretty big deal for them to do it, but Dr. Shulkin assigned Dr. Edelman—who’s the director out of Pittsburgh—to oversee this. Dr. Edelman has been following through on everything that he said, that our clinics would be fully staffed and they’d be fully operational, which sounds like it ought to be automatic but it wasn’t, and when we pushed for the Vineland clinic, because originally, when I first got involved, the Vineland clinic was in a trailer at the Memorial Home. And then we pushed them to have a real facility, which went to Sherman Avenue and for a number of years, it was good but it outgrew its usefulness and capacity.

So it’s serving all of Cumberland County?

All of Cumberland County. And I pushed very hard for a new clinic and, of course, there were always excuses, excuses, excuses. But when were able to get Wilmington  leadership changed over for people who understood the problem, we were able to get the money secured, and then, as you know and have indicated, last year we had the state-of-the-art, beautiful clinic at Landis and East Avenue open up. It opened up being staffed properly. It opened up being technologically able to accommodate the veterans. 

And, importantly, what we’ve also done is there was a bus that would start in Atlantic County, which stopped in Vineland and then proceed to Wilmington. [They were] mostly older vets. Some [were] World War II, Korea [and] Vietnam vets. This was a very harsh ride for them. There was not a bathroom on the bus. The bus wasn’t making stops. So one of the pushes that we made, along with the new clinic was to do our best to make that more comfortable for the veteran, so we were able to do away with the bus and get a pretty comfortable van. 

But most importantly, every veteran who was getting on the van was being asked do you want to go to Wilmington, or would you rather have care closer to home? So if it was something that the clinic couldn’t do, how could they go to, let’s say Inspira, to the hospital here? How could they go to a doctor that was close by?  Well, we had to have service provider agreements. When we started this whole process, we only had about a dozen service provider agreements, where a healthcare service provider entered into an agreement with the VA so they could exchange information and the billing could take place. 

We now have more than 200 service provider agreements. And of course Inspira for Cumberland County is a big one. They’ve been very progressive, they’ve been very proactive. And this is a great benefit to our veterans, so the only veteran who is now getting on this van to go to Wilmington is somebody who says I want to go to Wilmington, and if they do, we want to protect that. 

So, we’ve made a lot of progress. More technology is coming online to interact with the veterans, but again, it’s the mission that won’t end. We’re ready to embark on a new clinic, [and] the VA is deciding where it’s going in Cape May County. That clinic is pretty outdated, so it’ll follow along the same pattern we did with Cumberland County, and I’m sure for the veterans of Cape May County this will be a big plus. 

With the closing of Atlantic City casinos, the moving of the Vineland Progresso plant, and many people losing their jobs in other businesses, South Jerseyans are definitely feeling the pinch. 

Well, when we had the casino closures, Senator Booker and I joined together for an emergency grant for retraining. The federal government’s role is very limited to what we can provide and jump into. It’s mostly the state of New Jersey and the counties where that takes place. There could be, if a business wants to come in, an incentive package, and Senator Booker and I have both said if there is something, let’s take a long shot, like the Amazon project. 

The job retraining I think was helpful, [but] it’s not completely the answer. What Washington can do that really makes a difference is to establish policies that allow businesses to thrive, to retain employees, and to hire new employees and get businesses started. Progresso was a very bitter pill. It was especially bitter for me because in a prior life in the family business, trucking business, Progresso was our No. 1 customer for a long time. I was in that plant all the time, sometimes just visitng to make sure we were providing the service, sometimes actually bringing trailers in and out with empty pepper jars or cans for tomato sauce or something like that. 

The way General Mills handled this was absolutely wrong and atrocious. That having been said, we do know now that a local business from Rosenhayn is buying the plant, or entered into an agreement to, and will be reopening. Now it’s not going to be the same as Progresso, but there was an entity called Grow New Jersey that got involved. 

General Mills was helpful in the transfer for this and the state of New Jersey was helpful with an incentive package, to be able to put this together. 
Casinos are having some brighter light on the future, so to speak. The numbers look like they’re good. I think the biggest single thing that we can point to, to give hope for the future, is the decision of Hard Rock [to open a casino].... We’re always sort of at the short end of things. But again, if we can develop national policy, if this tax reform proposal moves forward, gives businesses more of an incentive to invest and to grow, it’ll benefit us here.

Watch the Interview on Video Here

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