November 30, 2011

Aaron K. Cohen survived one of the ultimate trials by fire on Capitol Hill, serving as chief of staff to former Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., in the last two years of a boiling sex scandal.

Now, standing in front of the debt-busting bus hurtling toward key federal healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid might seem easy for Cohen, who was recently tapped as principal consultant focused on health care policy at Capitol Counsel.  Cohen has been involved in politics and public policy since he was a student at Pepperdine University and interned for former Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev. After graduating from Pepperdine in 1999, he took a full-time position with Bryan as state liaison and policy adviser focused mainly on immigration, gun control, and Native American affairs.

As one of only two Republicans who had worked for Bryan, Cohen was then tapped to work as a staffer to Ensign.  He was chief policy adviser, working largely on health issues, including Medicare reform, the Food and Drug Administration’s user-fee programs, and coverage for veterans.

Cohen then took a break from the Capitol and went to work as vice president of government and political affairs for five years at Kimbell & Associates, also focused on health care issues.

After his stint at Kimbell, Cohen returned to Ensign’s office as chief of staff just as the scandal was breaking in 2009 over an affair Ensign acknowledged having with the wife of a top aide.  Ensign resigned in May after the Senate Ethics Committee began an investigation into the senator’s handling of the affair.

After the scandal broke, Cohen said, he “tried to steady the ship,” and even though the team was eventually forced to close down the senator’s office, “I think we pulled out pretty well from it.”

So Cohen has returned to consulting. In his new position at Capitol Counsel, Cohen will focus on the prospect of deep cuts to Medicare and Medicaid and the ongoing debate over FDA funding.  Of particular concern to him is the reauthorization of the Prescription Drug User Fee Act, which authorizes the FDA to collect fees from companies that produce certain drug and biological products.

“Companies at the end of the day are going to have to figure out what they are willing to pay in fees in order to have some tangible results from the FDA,” he said.

Cohen said the debate over health care cuts, already at the forefront of the national agenda because of the debt crisis, will only intensify heading into an election year.

The potential slashing of Medicare, Medicaid, and FDA funding is “the 900-pound gorilla in the room,” he said. “Our job is going to be … how to do this in a smart way … how to do it in a way that will be able to save money and help patients more effectively in the long run.”