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Seniors May Finally Enjoy a Prescription Drug Benefit Under Medicare

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By Senator Debbie Stabenow

Real efforts to lower prescription drug prices and save American families and businesses billions of dollars may finally be on the way as part of Medicare legislation that recently passed the Senate.

I voted yes on the Medicare prescription drug bill and it was one of the toughest votes I have cast since becoming your Senator.

Why? First and foremost, the bill does not provide the kind of prescription drug coverage that our seniors need and deserve. The bill has also many other flaws that I will be fighting to correct as the Senate and House move toward a final version.

But there is a very important part of the Senate bill that will bring true price competition to the prescription drug market by making lower-priced generic drugs available more quickly and allowing American families and pharmacies to buy medications from Canada at dramatically lower prices.

These two provisions can lower prices up to 70 percent. And that would make a tremendous difference in the lives of many Michiganians.

I have been fighting for both of these changes since I entered the Senate. In fact, legislation I sponsored or cosponsored on both these issues passed overwhelmingly in the Senate last year, but unfortunately died in the House of Representatives after intense lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry.

We can't let that happen again.

As a matter of basic fairness, it's time to bring sanity to the price of prescription drugs - rising at three-and-one-half times the rate of inflation.

Americans pay about $23 billion a year through the National Institutes of Health to fund the research that produces many of these drugs in the first place. We also give drug companies billions of dollars in tax credits and deductions and other incentives to encourage them to bring these drugs to market. And, finally, we offer the companies generous 20-year patent protections with possible extensions for valid reasons. The patents protect them from competition and allow them to recover the costs of their research and development.

The return on our investments in the pharmaceutical industry should be something better than paying the highest drug prices in the world!

Remember, prescription drugs are not like other consumer items - cookies, computers or cars. You can make do with an older car, a slower computer, eat fewer cookies - or live without any of these things. But if you need a specific drug to save your health or your life, you may find yourself choosing between food and medicine. Or you may be forced to jeopardize your entire life savings.

This situation will change once real competition is introduced into the prescription drug market.

The first thing the Senate bill does is close loopholes in our patent laws that allow prescription drug companies to use frivolous lawsuits and legal filings to improperly extend their patents and keep generic drugs - also called unadvertised brands - off the market for years.

Generics are medically identical to the heavily advertised name brands but can save consumers, businesses and health plans about $60 billion over 10 years.

The Senate bill also allows consumers and pharmacies to buy prescription drugs - all safe and FDA-approved - directly from Canada to take advantage of the dramatically lower prices available there, if the Secretary of Health and Human Services authorizes it.

On bus trips to Canada with Michigan seniors, I've seen real-life examples of the staggering difference prices we pay versus our neighbors to the north. For instance, Tamoxifen - a drug to treat breast cancer - costs $136.50 in Michigan for a one month supply, versus $15.92 in Canada.

That's a penalty of more than 700 percent for living in the United States and needing a prescription filled.

I have said repeatedly that I do not want to see 2 million tons of Canadian trash a year imported into Michigan as is happening now. But I'd be happy to see millions of doses of life-saving medicines cross the border into our local pharmacies.

And I'll be happy to see prescription drugs available to all Americans at reasonable prices we can afford. That's a goal worth fighting for!

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