WASHINGTON, March 25 – The Senate today approved major legislation to make college more affordable as Congress put finishing touches on major health care bill. The vote was 56 to 43.
“At a time of soaring college costs, increasing Pell grants for students is a smart investment in their future and ours,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a member of the Senate health and education committee. “With many young people not able to afford college or graduating deep in debt, this is an important step forward in making sure all of our people, regardless of income, have a better opportunity for a higher education.”
The student aid provision would provide $44 million in additional Pell grants to college students in Vermont between now and 2017. The maximum Pell grants would go from $5,550 next school year to $5,975 by 2017. Without the legislation, the aid would have plummeted to $2,150-per-student next year because the recession has made more students eligible for the income-based assistance.
The legislation changes the federal student loan program from one in which private banks distribute aid into a direct-loan program that eliminates the middle man’s added costs. A Sanders’ provision preserves a role for the nonprofit Vermont Student Assistance Corp so it may continue offering counseling and other assistance that it has provided for generations of Vermont students and their families.
“It makes a lot more sense to me that federal funds make college affordable than to provide billions of dollars of profits for large financial institutions,” Sanders said. “This is a good step forward but more needs to be done to address the issue of college affordability.”
Revisions in the new health care law, signed by President Obama on Tuesday, were part of the same legislation.
Another $2.5 billion was added to the $10 billion boost Sanders already won for a dramatic expansion of community health centers and physician training. Altogether, 8,000 new Federally Qualified Health Center facilities will be opened across the country over five years, more than double the number today. Additional centers almost certainly will be added in Vermont, where 110,000 patients already receive primary health care, dental care, mental health counseling, and low-cost prescription drugs at 41 sites operated by eight community health centers.
“We will be doubling the number of Americans with access to community health centers from 20 million to 40 million nationwide in every region of this country,” Sanders said. “That is a huge step forward in providing basic health care to millions of Americans who today cannot access that care.”
The health care changes approved by the Senate also gradually close a gap in coverage for prescription drugs for Medicare recipients, increase assistance to help low-income people afford health care. The bill also would boost Medicaid payments to states while protecting Vermont and other states that already covered more people than the federal government required.
“The bill is not as strong as I wanted and I will work to improve it, but it begins to move this country toward the long-time goal of providing comprehensive, affordable health care for all Americans,” Sanders said.
To watch the senator's floor speech from Wednesday, click here.