Jay: 2013 West Virginian of the Year
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jamie Rockefeller was 2 weeks old and he was sick. It was 1969, and he had something called pyloric stenosis, a narrowing of the stomach that prevents food from being digested. He needed surgery.
"I will never forget Sharon's and my terror," Jamie's father, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., recalled in September. "We didn't know about an operation. He's 2 weeks old -- a 2-week-old baby -- but we could do the operation because we could afford to do that, so we did that. And now he's 6 foot 4 and weighs about 250 pounds."
Of course Rockefeller, scion of one of America's richest and most powerful families, could pay for the surgery. But that helpless fear -- that a parent feels for a sick child -- stuck with him, and he realized how much that fear is compounded if health care is unavailable or unaffordable.
"Your infant child is sick, she's got a cough, her fever is spiking. You're not sure what to do, and there's a feeling of helplessness that comes with that," Rockefeller said. "What many of us can never understand is what it's like to feel that sense of dread without the comfort of affordable health care."
Rockefeller, who with his wife, Sharon, has four children and six grandkids, has spent much of his career trying to alleviate that sense of dread -- to bring medical care to people who otherwise wouldn't have it.
In 1992, he got the Coal Act passed, forcing coal companies to pay the health-care costs of retired miners.
In 1997, he was one of two lead sponsors of the Children's Health Insurance Program, which today gives health coverage to 25,000 low-income West Virginia kids.
In 2009, he led the reauthorization of CHIP, helping to secure the program's funding through 2015.
In November of this year, a clinic to treat chronic lung disease, partially funded by Jay and Sharon Rockefeller, opened in Cabin Creek. Two similar clinics are to open in Boone and Fayette counties.
On Wednesday, more than 80,000 of West Virginia's poorest residents will get health insurance, many for the first time, because of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's decision to expand Medicaid in the state, an expansion that Rockefeller relentlessly advocated.
On Dec. 12, Rockefeller spoke to the Senate Subcommittee on Health Care, which he chairs, to push for the same consumer protections in Medicaid that are required of private insurers.
"Medicare and Medicaid, and the people who rely on these vital programs, are in many ways my life's work. They are the reason for my public service," Rockefeller, who will retire in one year, told the subcommittee. "I am here today to continue work I've done for nearly 50 years: protecting the most vulnerable among us all. It is something I take very, very seriously,"
From allowing sick kids to get to a doctor, to bringing an auto plant and 1,200 jobs to Putnam County, to stopping phone companies from billing for bogus charges, to bringing Internet access to West Virginia's most rural schools and libraries, Rockefeller's career has been spent looking out for the most vulnerable West Virginians.
Someone who was born with much has spent 50 years fighting for those with little.
For a lifetime of advocating for the health and economic interests of the most vulnerable, least-noticed West Virginians -- and for his half-century of conscientious public service -- the Sunday Gazette-Mail has chosen U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller as the 2013 West Virginian of the Year.
'These are the people I represent'
Hours after the lung disease clinic opened in Cabin Creek, Rockefeller was honored for his decades of public service -- starting as a VISTA volunteer in Kanawha County in 1964.
Vice President Joe Biden, Rockefeller's longtime Senate colleague, was the keynote speaker at the annual West Virginia Democratic Party event.
"It can be said of Jay Rockefeller what I said of Bob Byrd," Biden said. "West Virginia is written on his heart. He wears it on his sleeve. He takes such pride in this place. He takes such pride in all of you."
In the conference room of Rockefeller's Washington, D.C., office in the Hart Senate Office Building hangs a large black-and-white photograph, a portrait of a West Virginia coal miner. His face smudged with coal, the man stares intently at anybody who stops to look.
And that's most everybody who comes to meet with Rockefeller.
"We would have CEOs of big communications companies, these highfalutin CEOs," said Jessica Rosenworcel, who worked on Rockefeller's Commerce Committee before she was appointed to the Federal Communications Commission in 2012. "And he would make every one of them take a look into those eyes and tell them, 'These are the people I represent and I want you to look into their eyes. I want you to look at this picture and look at his eyes and understand what I come to work to do every day.'
"He'd take these people in their impeccable suits and make them stare at it, and then he'd sit down to meet with them."
Whether it's making CEOs stare at a coal miner or comparing the federal government shutdown to black lung (hugely damaging but also eminently preventable), people who have worked with Rockefeller, say he is consistently motivated to do what's best for West Virginians, and he's not shy about doing that.
"Jay Rockefeller first arrived in West Virginia as a young volunteer, eager to improve the lives of working families," President Obama said in a statement earlier this year. "Jay has built an impressive legacy, one that can be found in the children who have better schools, the miners who have safer working conditions, the seniors who have retired with greater dignity and the new industries he helped to bring to West Virginia."
In May of this year, the Putnam County Toyota plant, which makes engines and transmissions, produced its 10-millionth unit.
Rockefeller was on hand in Buffalo to celebrate a milestone more than 25 years in the making, which began when he first traveled to Japan to meet with Toyota officials in 1986.
He would fly to Japan a dozen times over the next 20 years, cajoling and convincing Toyota executives that Putnam County was the best place for their investment. Toyota broke ground on the plant in 1996 and has expanded four times since then.
The plant employed 300 people when it opened. It now employs nearly 1,200. The company has invested more than $1.2 billion in the plant, the biggest industrial investment in West Virginia in 50 years.
"We had no idea it was going to expand and expand," Rockefeller said in May. "This is one of the biggest diversifications that has ever happened here, because we didn't make cars before."
Bruce Andrews was a vice president at Ford Motor Co. before he left to become general counsel for the Commerce Committee.
Andrews said Rockefeller transformed the committee when he became chairman in 2009, focusing on protecting average consumers and, for the first time, establishing an investigative unit within the committee.
That unit led a 2010 investigation of "cramming" on phone bills -- third-party charges for things like ring tones and voice mail that show up unexplained on customers' bills.
Rockefeller's investigation found that phone companies and others were making billions of dollars in fees from "cramming."
Rockefeller subsequently introduced legislation to end "cramming," but before he did, AT&T and Verizon -- under news media scrutiny and facing lawsuits -- voluntarily agreed to end the practice in 2012.
"If he saw an injustice and he saw consumers getting ripped off, there was not a shy bone in his body about going after it," Andrews said. "He recognized that, by being elected by the people of West Virginia, he was given this power to help people and, particularly, people who don't have the ability to stand up to entrenched interests on their own . . . and frankly, I think there are some that are shy about using that power. He never hesitated."
Andrews left the Commerce Committee in 2011 and is now the chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, where he still hears from Rockefeller regularly.
"He is tireless and he is relentless," Andrews said. "He is not shy about calling when there is something that he wants to see happen for West Virginia."
Insuring West Virginia
For months now, two numbers associated with the Affordable Care Act have drawn all the attention: The millions of people who have had their coverage canceled because their insurance didn't meet the law's minimum standards; and the millions of people who have signed up for private insurance through a state-run exchange or the balky federal website.
In West Virginia, though, those two numbers do not tell the story of the new law.
About 8,800 West Virginians have had their plans canceled. About 2,300 have signed up for private insurance on the new exchange. Those numbers are dwarfed by another, less touted one: About 83,000 people, most of whom make less than $15,000 a year, have signed up for expanded Medicaid. Nearly 5 percent of West Virginia will have new, affordable health insurance beginning Wednesday because the state decided to expand Medicaid.
It was not always clear that West Virginia would expand Medicaid. Tomblin was noncommittal for months as he waited for the results of a study on how expansion would affect the state's finances.
In May, when he announced the decision to expand, he was the last Democratic governor to do so, and West Virginia was one of the last states to announce a decision.
Rockefeller, who had urged expansion for months, was with Tomblin at Saint Francis Hospital in Charleston for the announcement.
He said he felt "absolute, sheer happiness" at the decision, which he called "a commitment to the American public which makes so much financial sense."
The federal government pays for the entire cost of expanding Medicaid for the first three years, and 90 percent of the costs after that.
The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that expanding Medicaid will bring West Virginia an extra $8.7 billion in federal money over the next 10 years. West Virginia's share of the cost over that time is estimated at $619 million, yielding a return on investment, if you will, of more than 1,300 percent.
In neighboring Virginia, which is not expanding Medicaid, 276,000 of the state's poorest residents will not only not get coverage through Medicaid, but they also will be ineligible for subsidies to buy private insurance because they make too little to qualify.
In a state where Obama lost all 55 counties in 2012, taking any position in support of his divisive health-care law is politically risky, but it's not the first time Rockefeller has taken a politically controversial position on health care.
In 1988, Rockefeller was a first-term senator when he was appointed to the Pepper Commission, to study and recommend solutions for health and long-term care.
Soon after, in 1989, the commission was thrown into turmoil, when its chairman and namesake, Rep. Claude Pepper, died. Several months later, amid popular uproar, Congress repealed a Medicare reform law it had passed overwhelmingly only a year before.
Members of the Pepper Commission were not exactly chomping at the bit to take a leadership role on health reform during such a contentious time.
"Given the repeal of the bill that was changing Medicare, most other members of the commission were, shall we say, not enthusiastic about delving in," said Judith Feder, staff director for the Pepper Commission. "It was a controversial topic and viewed as politically risky, whatever position you chose to take. That did not inhibit Senator Rockefeller, and he stepped up to the chair.
"He always put West Virginia at the top of his list and assessed policy proposals in terms of how they would affect West Virginians," Feder, who became dean of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute said. "He felt strongly that affordable health care was critical to the citizens -- the children and the adults, and the older and the disabled -- of West Virginia and the nation."
In 1997, Rockefeller was the primary author of CHIP, which provides health care to children whose families make between 100 percent and 300 percent of the federal poverty level.
Combined with Medicaid, which covers the very poorest children, CHIP provided health coverage to more than 190,000 West Virginia kids in November, roughly half of all the children in the state.
In the poorest areas of West Virginia, the programs are even more crucial.
West Virginia CHIP estimates that there are only 133 uninsured kids in McDowell County, largely because 77 percent of children there get insurance through Medicaid or CHIP.
Clay County has just 66 uninsured kids, according to CHIP estimates, because 70 percent are covered through the two programs.
"We're just very grateful that we've had him as an ongoing champion," said Sharon Carte, director of CHIP in West Virginia. "The same year that they were passing the ACA, they were ready to cut CHIP altogether, and it was Senator Rockefeller who really insisted that there had to be appropriated funds until 2015."'Passionate and committed'
While everything in Washington these days is partisan, Rockefeller has fought for West Virginians and, at the same time, remained collegial with his Republican colleagues.
"The chairman's very committed to looking out for consumers," said Sen. John Thune, the ranking Republican on the Commerce Committee.
Thune, a sometimes-rumored presidential candidate from South Dakota, readily admits that he and Rockefeller have different views on policy and that the committee's agenda reflects Rockefeller's priorities. But he said they've bonded over little things -- both are from rural states, both like talking about basketball and both are more than 6 feet 4 inches tall.
"These relationships up here, because of differences on the issues, sometimes can be a little bit contentious, but I think we really work to keep it very amicable," Thune said. "We all have a job to do and I think he tries to do his the way that he sees best and in the best interest of the people that he represents."
Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, was more effusive in her praise.
Snowe, who retired earlier this year after 18 years in the Senate and 16 years in the House, recalled a collaboration with Rockefeller as one of her greatest accomplishments.
In 1995, Congress set about updating the Communications Act -- which created the FCC and regulated phone, radio and other communications -- for the first time in 61 years. Snowe and Rockefeller proposed amendments that would expand Internet access to rural areas of the country.
At the time, about 14 percent of American schools had Internet access.
"Jay called me up, one early morning," Snowe remembered, "and he said, 'You know, why don't we enjoin our efforts, merge our two amendments?' Because they were ultimately for the same purpose."
Snowe agreed, but her party controlled the Senate at the time and she was under pressure from Republican leadership to not offer any amendments.
"Jay kept coming over saying, 'Are you alright? Are you alright?' and I said, 'Yeah don't worry about it,'" Snowe said. "Jay was so passionate and committed. He monitored this effort -- every detail, every facet. He was so passionate in his belief about it; he was somebody you would want to have on your side. He was totally remarkable."
The amendment, which became the E-rate program, uses fees on telecommunications companies to help pay for Internet access in rural schools and libraries.
After the bill passed, parts of it were still in flux as the FCC ruled on the details. Two days before Election Day in 1996, Rockefeller called Snowe, concerned about an upcoming FCC decision.
"I said, 'Jay don't you have bigger things to worry about, like your re-election,'" Snowe recalled. "And he says, 'Yeah, but this is very important to me.'
"I never forgot that, I was so impressed."
Today, more than 95 percent of American schools are connected to the Internet.
"The work he did with Senator Snowe is going to be the stuff for the history books," said Rosenworcel, who, as an FCC commissioner, oversees the program. "It's flat-out extraordinary the foresight the two of them had, realizing that it would be essential for the next generation's education.
"He had the foresight to see that back in 1996, when you and I probably called the Internet the 'information superhighway.'"
Snowe, a self-styled moderate, bemoaned the lack of civility and bipartisanship in Washington. She said she could work with Rockefeller even though he wasn't a centrist because he was a legislator in the truest sense of the word -- more interested in crafting policy than in the politics of it.
"He'll be missed and [it's] a real loss to the Senate. I can't overstate it, actually," Snowe said. "He was passionate about the issues and caring about getting things done for the people he represented in West Virginia."
Reach David Gutman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5119.