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Public Statements

Health Care

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

HEALTH CARE

Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, I thank my colleague from North Dakota for his comments and associate myself with them as well.

As we move through Appropriations Committees, there are a number of important issues that confront us. I rise to speak to the issue of health care and add my voice to the growing chorus of people who are concerned about our Nation's health and want us to have a sense of urgency about health care.

We have just passed a bill that will allow our tax dollars to be used in Iraq for a universal government-paid health care system for the Iraqis. There are people in the United States asking: What about us; what about making sure each of us has health care as well?

There are businesses seeing their premiums double. The average small business is seeing their premiums double now every 5 years, and that is, in fact, growing even higher. Large businesses, negotiating contracts, find themselves dealing with the issue of health care as the top concern of both the business and employees.

When we look internationally at our ability to compete around the world, the health care system that is tied to employment has created a situation where our large businesses competing in the world are having more difficulties competing successfully in this competitive environment where every dollar counts. We are hearing from unusual places a call for a focus on health care, a focus on a more universal kind of system that will allow us to have the health care we want for our families and our businesses to be able to compete both within our country and around the world.

What is most disturbing is when we look at the numbers in terms of the costs going up and the number of people now without insurance. A new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Education Trust found that employer-sponsored health insurance premiums increased almost 14 percent this year. This is the seventh straight year of premium increases and the largest increase since 1990. Premiums now average over $9,000 a year for the typical family health insurance policy. And for an individual, it is $3,383. Rising premiums are placing a very heavy financial burden on our families and are making it increasingly difficult for families to find and afford health care.

Because there is no successful plan to stimulate the economy right now, we are seeing more and more Americans go without health care and other basic needs. According to a recently released U.S. Census Report, the number of Americans without health insurance has jumped by 5.7 percent to almost 44 million people. That equals the populations of 24 States plus Washington, DC. Think about that. The number of people who are uninsured now equals the population of 24 States and Washington, DC. If this is not a crisis, if we do not need a sense of urgency, I don't know when we will, when we look at what is happening.

Families U.S.A. has done their 2001-2002 survey and determined that in Michigan 2.3 million Michiganians under age 65 went without health insurance sometime within that year. That means one in four people in my great State of Michigan, under the age of 65, went without health care during this time period. This is not acceptable and we need a sense of urgency about these issues.

Who are these people? Well, the majority of them are working. Actually, more than 80 percent of the uninsured live in working families. The majority of those who are uninsured are working. So this is a small business issue. This is an issue of people who are working but are not in businesses that can afford health insurance themselves for their employees, which is why we need to tackle this issue working with our small business community as well as our large business community.

When one member of a family is uninsured, it can affect all of the family and their quality of life. We know many young people going out into their first jobs are not insured and run a high risk of something happening and of their not being able to deal with it in a productive way.

One of my major concerns right now, as we move forward in the work on a Medicare prescription drug benefit, is that we not forget that there are important parts of cost containment in that legislation that would affect all of those who need health insurance, or have health insurance. We know that about half of the reason the cost of insurance premiums is going up for businesses right now is because of the cost of prescription drugs.

So one of the primary ways we can help businesses to be able to afford health insurance and be able to provide more opportunities for people to have health insurance is to lower the price of prescription drugs. The average prescription brand name drug is going up faster than three and a half times the rate of inflation. So when we look at what we are debating right now under Medicare, there are two very important focus areas for us. One is to eliminate patent loopholes that stop patents from coming to an end and allow lower cost, unadvertised brands to be able to go on the market through our generic
drug process.

We passed a bipartisan bill in the Senate not once but twice since I have been here in the last 2½ years. This needs to be passed by the entire Congress and put on the President's desk this year, whether it is part of the Medicare conference report or whether it is done separately.

We also know that if we create more competition by tearing down this artificial border which doesn't allow Americans to purchase safe FDA-approved prescriptions from other countries, particularly Canada, where we know their supply chain and safety processes are virtually equivalent to ours, if we do that, we can also create great competition to lower prices.
There are a lot of stories right now in the paper about concerns about the safety of prescription drugs at home as well as abroad—legitimate issues that deal with what is happening with wholesalers in our country, issues that need to be addressed by the FDA and all of us. We need to be increasing the ability for the FDA to have the inspectors and enforcement powers against those kinds of activities that create unsafe medication.

But when you talk about the issue of what has been called importation, we are talking about a process that allows the local pharmacist, the licensed pharmacist at the local pharmacy or the local hospital, to have the same ability to do what every part of the pharmaceutical industry does right now, which is to do business with those in another country and bring a supply chain of prescription drugs back to the local pharmacies.

The reason we are seeing so much activity now, so many ways people are trying to find prescription drugs that are affordable to them, is because prices are too high. The fact is that people cannot afford their cancer medicine, their blood pressure medicine, and those other kinds of medicines they need to be able to live productive lives or, in many cases, be able to survive.

The reason we are seeing so many people looking for other ways to find prescription drugs is because the prices are too high. We need to work together to have a system with integrity and with safety, that creates a product that is affordable, that creates a product that can be available to our citizens who desperately need these lifesaving medicines.

If we do that, we address half the reason health care costs are rising. We then need to focus on the question of the uninsured and how we partner to be able to make sure people have access to health care, so we can bring those prices down.

In closing, we need a sense of urgency about health care. We need a sense of urgency here just as every business, every employee, every family has a sense of urgency about health care now and whether it will be available to their families. I hope we will make that a top priority for this Senate.

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