HEALTH INSURANCE MARKETPLACE MODERNIZATION AND AFFORDABILITY ACT OF 2006--MOTION TO PROCEED
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Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, I thank my colleague from Oregon for his incredible leadership on something that makes so much sense, negotiating group prices under Medicare.
Why in the world wouldn't we want to get the best price? Taxpayers want us to get the best price. Seniors want us to get the best price. The disabled want us to get the best price. Why in the world wouldn't we want to do everything possible to have a Medicare prescription drug benefit that offers the very best prices so we can offer as much coverage as possible? One of the things we know, the gap in coverage is partly because we are paying so much for the whole plan. We could give people more coverage and spread it out differently if we were, in fact, negotiating group prices.
I thank my colleague who has come to the Senate floor on so many occasions. He always makes so much sense. I know the people in Oregon are proud of what he has done.
To add to the discussion on Medicare, I am pleased we have Health Week. Even though I will speak at some later time in terms of the concerns I have about the underlying bill, we all chose to vote to proceed to debate on health care because there is nothing more important to the people we represent, whether it is the manufacturers I represent who are having to compete in a global economy and figure how to do that while paying so much of the cost of health care or whether it is small businesses, self-employed people who cannot find coverage at affordable prices, whether it is our seniors or whether it is women and children who need care.
We have a serious issue when we spend twice as much on health care in this country than any other country and still have 46 million people with no insurance, 80 percent of them working.
This is an important debate. Part of that debate, I believe because of the timing, needs to be to address what is happening with Medicare prescription drug coverage. Unfortunately, we are 6 days away from a Medicare prescription drug deadline. Right now, 6 days from now, folks are going to be penalized if they have not signed up for a Medicare prescription drug plan, even though they are having to wade through a lot of information and misinformation in order to be able to figure out what to do, if anything.
I am sure my colleagues have received as many calls as I have received, thousands of calls and letters from people all across Michigan about the trouble they are having related to this Medicare prescription drug program--calls from pharmacists trying to help people figure what to do, spending hours on the phone, being put on hold, unfortunately, receiving inaccurate information too much of the time. We know there are serious issues that have come about because the Government has not gotten its act together, as we should, to be able to present them to people in a way they can understand and make sure it works for seniors and disabled.
We know choosing a plan is extremely challenging and confusing. We have an obligation on our end to do something about that, not wait 6 days and penalize people because they have not signed up for a plan that they may not be able to figure out.
This is not because people are not bright. In Michigan alone there are at least 79 different plans to choose from. Each plan has a different premium, a different copay, covers different medicines. Under the current law, as I indicated before, anyone who does not go through these 79 plans, or whatever number they have in their State, by next Monday will find themselves paying a lifetime penalty, more for prescription drugs than they would if they signed up before then.
A decision about something that is so fundamental to a person's health as their medicine should not be rushed. We should not be scaring seniors into picking a plan that may not work for them because of a penalty they will receive after next Monday. Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening.
Unfortunately, I continue to believe the ``D'' in Medicare Part D stands for disaster. That does not mean some people are not getting helped. We want people to be helped. We want people who have not otherwise had help to be able to receive it. That is a very important point in this process because the administration has been talking about the 29.7 million seniors who are now covered, seniors and disabled who now have drug coverage under Part D.
But what they are not saying, of the 29 million, 20 million already had coverage. They were covered under Medicaid, they were covered under private insurance, under a Medicare HMO. We are talking about less than 30 percent of those who have not had any help with their medicine, less than 30 percent, have actually signed up so far.
Is it because they do not want help? Of course not. It is because they are having challenges getting through the bureaucracy and trying to figure out what works for them and what does not work for them?
I will share a story of a woman who called me yesterday. This exemplifies the thousands of calls and stories I receive in Michigan. A member of my staff spoke with Shirley Campbell from Midland, MI, yesterday, not far from my hometown. Shirley told my staff about the experience she and her sister had enrolling in Part D. First, they had a terrible time getting through to the so-called ``help'' line.
By the way, the Government Accountability Office says almost 60 percent of the time folks trying to get through to the 1-800 Medicare number are getting incomplete or inaccurate information. That is stunning. We have to get our act together before we penalize people for not signing up for a program.
She kept trying. Shirley kept trying. Once she got through, in response to her question, she was told, ``I can't answer that question because the site is down.'' She did not give up. She called back the next week and she called back the following week. Each time she had the same experience. She could not get an answer to her question because ``the site is down.'' This is the administration's idea of a ``help'' line? It is not much help.
Because Shirley could not get the information she needed from the administration, she called several plans and asked them all to send her their information. Imagine how big that mailbox was. Then she and her sister sat down and spent more than 10 hours sifting through all the information they had received. They narrowed it down to six plans and began a thorough analysis.
What did they find? From the six plans, all of the plans would cost Shirley more than she is currently paying for the medications necessary for her rheumatoid arthritis. Six plans she narrowed it down to, and all of them would cost her more than what she is currently paying. Shirley currently does not have any coverage. Yet she would end up paying more under any of the six plans she studied.
Think of that. We are trying to help people who do not have coverage, and less than 30 percent of the folks who have signed up have been people who did not have help before. Maybe it is because they were like Shirley, when they tried to find someone to help them, they found out they would be paying even more under this privatized scheme that has been set up than they are currently paying.
She also told my staff that most of the plans would have cost her twice as much as she is now paying. But she ended up choosing a plan that would cost her more than what she is currently paying, even though she currently does not have any coverage. She says she signed up because she was worried about the looming May 15 enrollment deadline and the prospect of paying a penalty for the rest of her life.
What sense does this make? Folks are seeing the clock count, 6 days away, until the May 15 deadline and penalty. And Shirley is so worried about what that means down the road, the cost she would be paying and a lifetime penalty, she signs up for a plan that costs her more than she is currently paying. I don't believe Shirley or any senior should be rushed into a premature decision because of an arbitrarily determined deadline. That is all this is. There is nothing magical about May 15, nothing at all.
Shirley worked in middle management all her life. She had the ability to spend hours and hours wading through the plan, the brochures, the paperwork. In the end, she had to make a decision that leaves her worse off than she is today.
Shirley wrapped up her experience of choosing a Part D plan by saying, ``I never in a million years would have done anything like this to my staff.''
She then asked my health legislative assistant to deliver the message to me that the Medicare Part D Program needs to be fixed. Amen. I could not agree more with Shirley.
This is Health Week. This is the time to fix it. The first thing we need to do to fix it is to give folks more time.
I am proud to be joining Senator Bill Nelson on legislation to extend the deadline to the end of the year. If given the opportunity, and I hope we will have the opportunity, we intend to offer that as an amendment, as we proceed with Health Week. People should not be penalized because the Government cannot get its act together. People should not be penalized when almost 60 percent of the time when they call a hotline they cannot get the information they need, it is inaccurate or incomplete. That is not their fault.
The whole point of this was to make sure we were helping people who were choosing between food and medicine, people who were choosing between medicine and paying the rent, the electric bill or gas prices right now. If that is not happening, why are we moving full steam ahead with some arbitrary deadline? Six days from now, folks are going to be penalized because the Government has been slow to get its act together, and they will be permanently penalized by paying more.
Less than 30 percent of the people who do not currently get help paying for their medicines have actually signed up. That should say something. It should either say, it is not a good deal, and they found out they would be paying more, and they said forget it or it says to us that maybe we need to go back to the drawing board and make sure the right information, in the right way, is given out to people so they can make the best decision for themselves.
I am also extremely concerned that in my home State of Michigan only 22 percent of the 256,000 seniors eligible for low-income help, only 22 percent of those whom we said we wanted to help the most by waiving the premium and the copay, only 22 percent have signed up to get that extra help.
Unfortunately, our low-income seniors are caught twice because they have to pick a plan. They have to, similar to Shirley, wade through all kinds of plans. Then they have to sign up separately to be able to get low-income help.
I am pleased the administration has said they will allow low-income seniors to be able to sign up after May 15. I appreciate that. That is a good start. Unfortunately, the penalty is not waived. Our lowest income seniors, even though they may be able to sign up in June, July, and August--and that is a good thing and I appreciate the administration doing that--I urge them to waive that penalty. It makes no sense if you allow people to sign up for extra help and then take it away through a penalty for signing up late.
The final issue is our poorest seniors, our lowest income seniors in Michigan and individuals making less than $14,700 a year, our lowest income seniors or the disabled, in too many instances are actually paying more under this plan than they were before. Why? Because they were on Medicaid before for the low-income health care. In Michigan, that meant paying a $1
copay for a prescription, and that has doubled, tripled or gone higher. This also makes no sense.
On top of that, those who were in Medicaid, our lowest income seniors, many in nursing homes, were automatically enrolled sometime in the last few months, into a plan, regardless of whether it covered the medicines. We have said to the lowest income seniors, many of them in nursing homes, you are signed up for a plan, and you have to go figure out whether it even helps you and how you are going to get out of it if it doesn't help you.
And, by the way, you are going to pay more.
We can do better than this. I believe No. 1 is to stop the 6-day count. No. 1, we have to give folks more time to wade through all of this, to figure out what is going on, and we have to give some more time to the Government to get its act together. The administration is doing a disservice to people by the way this has been handled. Giving more time will allow that to happen.
I am also very hopeful we are going to come back and come together and give people the one choice they really want. People do not want 70 plans. They are not saying: Oh, please, give me a whole bunch of insurance papers to wade through. Give me increased premiums. Give me all kinds of deadlines to deal with. What they said was: I need help with my medicine.
We are blessed in this country to have more medicine available as a part of the way we allow ourselves to live healthier lives, longer lives, to be able to treat cancers, to be able to treat other chronic illnesses. Medicines are available now. But they are not available if they are not affordable. We can do better.
Mr. President, I am hopeful at some point we are going to come back to this floor and give people the choice they want: A real Medicare benefit through Medicare, with a reasonable copay and premium, where you sign up and you can go to your local pharmacy, and Medicare negotiates good prices. That is what we ought to be doing.
In the meantime, let's stop the countdown to May 15.
Thank you, Mr. President.