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With all the political battles, it's easy to forget sometimes that Congress is a place where people work together and get to know each other. And each new Congress means welcoming fresh faces and saying goodbye to long time members.

The 113th Congress, which convenes tomorrow, will be the first one in 40 years without California Democratic Congressman Pete Stark. He was defeated in November by a fellow Democrat.

As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, he leaves a long-lasting mark on the nation's health care system.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Just how influential has Pete Stark been in his four decades when it comes to health policy? Very, says John Rother. He's president and CEO of the National Coalition on Health Care, a nonpartisan group working to improve the nation's health care system.

JOHN ROTHER: He's been part of almost every piece of health legislation that's been enacted, including the Affordable Care Act. And many of the changes and improvements in Medicare trace to him as well.

ROVNER: Stark himself singles out two pieces of legislation of which he's particularly proud, both from the 1980s.

REPRESENTATIVE PETE STARK: I guess in terms of results, COBRA, 40 million people probably have used it. That and EMTALA. Those two are major changes in the health delivery system.

ROVNER: COBRA is the 1986 law that allows people to remain on their employer's health insurance plans after they leave their job, as long as they pay the full premium. EMTALA is the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act. It requires hospitals that participate in Medicare or Medicaid to see and stabilize anyone who shows up in their emergency rooms regardless of their insurance status.

California Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, who's worked with Stark for 38 of the past 40 years, says EMTALA is a much bigger deal than many people realize.

REPRESENTATIVE HENRY WAXMAN: Imagine what it would be like in this country if somebody was bought into an emergency room, and because they didn't have insurance they were just turned away to bleed to death in the streets.

ROVNER: What exactly made Stark such an effective legislator? It certainly hasn't his manner. In fact, says John Rother, Stark's mouth has long had a penchant for getting him in trouble.

ROTHER: Pete is a combination of a person who speaks his mind - sometimes before thinking things through - but who actually does the work and has got the legislative record to prove it. So while he gets people exasperated with occasional off-the-cuff remarks, when you look at the work that's been produced under his name, it's truly impressive.

ROVNER: Some of the things Stark has had to apologize for include calling former GOP Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, who was black, a quote, "disgrace to his race," and suggesting former Connecticut Republican Representative Nancy Johnson learned about health via, quote, "pillow talk," because her husband was a doctor.

But for all his partisan jabs, Stark had an almost legendary working relationship with Ohio Congressman Bill Gradison, who was the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee. Most of the time Stark was chairman.

STARK: Never once did we report a bill out of that subcommittee that he and I did not both co-sponsor and end up supporting on the floor.

ROVNER: Gradison, now teaching at Duke University's business school, says Stark went out of his way to be cooperative.

BILL GRADISON: At the beginning of every year, he and I and our senior staffs would sit down, talk about the issues that we anticipated would be coming up in that next year and talk about potential subjects for hearings and potential witnesses, and there was a lot of give and take.

ROVNER: But first and foremost, says Congressman Waxman, Stark spent most of his career fighting for the Medicare program his subcommittee oversaw.

WAXMAN: He devoted his career to Medicare, making sure it worked, beneficiaries were protected. We got the best we could for money we were spending, and to avoid spending money that wasn't going to directly help people who are in the Medicare program.

ROVNER: And what will Stark miss most when he leaves Congress? He says it's getting up and looking in the mirror every morning.

STARK: And say, hey, I'm going to do something today that's going to make life better for somebody. And that's pretty - when I was a banker I get up in the morning and say, whose car am I going to repossess or whose house am I going to foreclose? And that didn't start you out on a very nice approach for the rest of the day.

ROVNER: Stark says he hasn't decided what he'll do next, but it will likely involve helping disadvantaged children.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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