PRESCRIPTION DRUGS -- (Senate - April 18, 2007)
Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, we have a very important vote we are going to take in a few minutes about whether we are going to be allowed to proceed--even to proceed--to a bill that would give the Secretary of Health and Human Services a very important tool to lower prices for prescription drugs.
With all due respect to my friends on the other side of the aisle, I hear very differently from seniors. First of all, they don't like, in Michigan, wading through 50, 60, 70 different insurance plans and all the paperwork to figure out what plan they are going to sign up for. They wanted us to go directly to Medicare which is, by the way, a Government-run program, one of the most successful in the U.S. Government.
They wanted us to be able to set up prescription drug coverage through Medicare. That wasn't done. Instead, we have this privatized system that was geared to making sure the industry would have the maximum amount of profit. That has been the focus, unfortunately, of this legislation, which
is why we would see, in the middle of a prescription drug bill for seniors, actual language that says: You cannot negotiate for lower prices.
Now, we have an opportunity to change that, to take that language away. What are we hearing? Well, we are hearing all kinds of things, all kinds of things. On the one hand we hear: This will do nothing for seniors. It will not help seniors. It will not lower prices. On the other hand we hear: It is going to do all kinds of things that are very terrible for people.
Well, it can't be both. What we have going on is an orchestrated effort by the industry to keep things the way they are.
If we were able to get better prices for seniors, there would not be that big gap in coverage that I guess some folks think the seniors like. Seniors in Michigan do not like that. After they have paid some $2,100 in drug costs, going into a gap where the average price has actually gone up, they have no help. This is a very different world I am hearing from, the people in Michigan, rather than what we are hearing from the industry and from others who support this plan the way it is.
We can do better than this Medicare prescription drug benefit. Today is the opportunity to decide whose side you are on, either on the side of the industry that is doing great under this bill, record profits, or you are going to be on the side of the seniors who are asking us to help them, whatever way we can, get the best deal for them by lowering their prices.
I wish to go through a few of the myths and the scare tactics that have been out there, and there have been many, there is no question about it. First of all, we are hearing from the industry now in big ads--by the way, I should say, $135,000 an ad a day--by folks who say this bill would not do anything. It is the Washington Post and another Washington Post. We go on and we can see all of the papers that we read. We have seen these ads in the Congressional Daily--daily, millions and millions of dollars.
I woke up this morning to an ad on television I have seen many times: The Medicare prescription drug benefit, yes, it is doing great for them. It is not doing great for our seniors.
Here is one of the things they are saying: that 89 percent of the folks oppose negotiation, if it could limit access to new prescription drugs. What they are saying is, they are telling people they are going to limit access to new drugs, they are not going to be able to do research anymore.
In fact, this bill would not limit access to prescription medication. I have to say, with all due respect, the industry spends about 2 1/2 times more on advertising and marketing than they do on research. We have a long way to go. We could cut out a couple of ads. One ad for $135,000, if it was not done, I wonder how much medicine that would buy for people? This is not about doing away with research. We know that. CBO says that. We know that as a fact. This is not about taking away access to medicine for people.
We are being told it will have an effect on other purchasers. The Congressional Budget Office, I asked them to put in writing, after our Finance hearing, whether this bill would do that. CBO anticipates that S. 3--the bill in front of us, the Medicare Prescription Drug Price Negotiation Act of 2007 as reported by the Finance Committee--would not have an effect on drug prices for other purchasers.
Unfortunately, my good friends, the veterans for whom we work hard, whom we have raised health care dollars for, have been told something different. That is very unfortunate. It is not true. It is a scare tactic. This bill does not do that. CBO, in fact, has indicated it does not do that.
We hear something else that I think is very important. We hear: Well, we should not compare this to the VA; the Veterans' Administration negotiates group prices for our veterans. In fact, the average difference in price is 58 percent.
Now, some go up to as high as 1,000 percent, a 1,000-percent difference. On Zocor, there is a 1,000-percent difference. It seems to me there is a little room for us to negotiate for those on Medicare within that 1,000 percent.
But we are told no. The problem is that the VA, first of all, gets lower prices because they do not offer as many drugs; you cannot go to the VA and get the drugs you need, which is also not true.
From a presentation overview of the VA pharmacy benefit, in a presentation that was made, comparing apples to apples, now they have compared on the other side of this argument chemical compounds as opposed to actual drugs.
But the fact is, under Medicare there are 4,300 different drugs available, 4,300. Under the VA, they dispense 4,700--not 4,300--4,778 specific drug products, specific drug products which represent the chemical compounds that have been used on the other side of the argument.
In fact, in addition to that, if you go to the VA and if on the list, the approved list, there is not the medicine you need, you can ask for an exception to get the medicine you need. In addition to the 4,778 different medicines available from the VA, last year they dispensed prescriptions for an additional 1,416 different drugs so our seniors, our veterans were able to get what they needed from the VA.
When we hear concerns about veterans health care, with all due respect--I hear a lot about driving too far to get tests, waiting too long to see a doctor--I do not hear about not being able to get medicine.
The fact is, the VA dispenses more different prescriptions at a lower price than this privatized system, what I view as a dismantling of Medicare that has taken place through the prescription drug benefit that is before us.
What we have is the ability today to take a vote on proceeding to a bill that 87 percent of the American public wants to see us pass. And this is the AARP. Now, I find it very interesting, on the one hand, we have got all the folks representing the industry doing well under this bill, putting in ads, doing surveys, talking to us through the television and the radio saying that seniors do not want to negotiate the best price because of all these scare tactics.
But when the group who represents seniors, the AARP, speaks, they tell us 87 percent of voters want us to move ahead. This is a tool. This is giving the Secretary the ability to use that tool in a way that is responsible and will lower prices for our seniors. This is a motion to proceed.
I hope we are not going to see what we have seen, unfortunately, too many times this year, as we have--in the new majority--worked hard to change the direction of this country. I hope we do not see our efforts stopped from even moving forward to debate this critical piece of legislation. Eighty seven percent of the American public has some common sense. They are saying: What are you doing? What are you doing that you would not give the Secretary the ability to negotiate the best price?
I hope we will join together overwhelmingly and vote to give us the opportunity to consider this bill, to be able to move forward on a basic policy of common sense to help our seniors, people on Medicare, get the lowest possible price for their medicine.