Issue Position: Health Care
Healthcare in America is in crisis. At last count over 46 million Americans currently have no health insurance, and many more forgo insurance for at least part of each year. Disparities in health care access and quality are far too common and costs are growing at unsustainable rates. Senator Leahy has been a champion of expanding access to affordable health care, investing in life-saving biomedical research, and educating and recruiting our next generation of health care professionals. He has also advocated for the passage of many important pieces of legislation, including bills that would legalize the importation of prescription drugs, provide parity for mental health insurance benefits, remedy our nation's nursing shortage and expand the health care safety net.
For far too long Americans have paid the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. Far too many are faced with the impossible decision of whether to buy food or medications.
Senator Leahy has been working with other senators to improve access to affordable prescription drugs for seniors by legalizing the importation of medicine from Canada. He is a cosponsor of S.334, a bill that would create a safe and legal system allowing Americans to import prescription drugs from certified Canadian pharmacies.
In late 2003 Congress added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare that began this January. Senator Leahy voted against the version proposed by the Administration because he believed that, among other problems, it does far more for the drug companies than our nation's seniors.
The implementation of the drug benefit has been mismanaged and confusing. Seniors in Vermont and across the country have been overcharged for and, in some cases, denied their prescription drugs. To address these problems Senator Leahy is supporting legislation that would increase protections for seniors and provide support for beneficiaries and pharmacists who have been negatively impacted by the problematic program.
The Battle Over the Importation of Prescription Drugs
For several years, millions of Americans have looked outside our borders for relief from the high prices of prescription drugs. Although current Federal law prohibits the importation of prescription drugs from outside of the U.S., Americans have been able to import a small amount of medication for their personal use. But recently, the Food and Drug Administration has begun escalating its enforcement policy against Americans who are trying to buy these affordable prescription drugs. Senator Leahy was joined by five other senators in writing to the head of the Food and Drug Administration, asking him to clarify the Administration's policy on this issue. On July 14, 2004, Senator Leahy co-chaired a hearing in the Judiciary Committee to examine the implications of drug importation. Congressman Bernie Sanders and CEO and Executive Director of United Health Alliance of Bennington, Dr. Elizabeth Wennar, both testified that the importation of prescription drugs will help millions of Americans be able to afford life-saving medicine.
Senator Leahy has long been a supporter of mental health parity and strongly believes that every American should have the right to high quality, financially and geographically accessible mental health care. He has routinely cosponsored a critical piece of legislation The Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment , which would end discrimination in health insurance against people in need of mental health care.
During the first session of the 108th Congress, Senator Leahy introduced the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment Act, a bill that would create planning and implementation grants for communities to offer treatment and other services (such as housing, education, or job placement) to mentally ill offenders. In a bi-partisan showing, the Senate unanimously passed the bill and it was signed into law on October 30, 2004. In subsequent years Senator Leahy has written to the Appropriations Committee requesting continued funding for this important initiative.
Battling for Mental Health Parity
Despite broad bipartisan support for the Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act of 2003, this bill languished for over a year without a vote on the Senate floor. In the fall of 2003 Senator Leahy joined with more than sixty senators in writing to the Majority Leader, asking that he bring this bill before the full Senate for a vote. Unfortunately, an agreement still has not been reached that would allow for passage of this bill. Senator Leahy remains committed to passage of this legislation and will strongly support it when it is reintroduced in the Senate during the 109th Congress.
Waging a War on Breast Cancer in Congress
Senator Leahy Tells How It Began
Early in 1992, I was visited by several Vermont women, activists and victims of breast cancer, and we discussed the urgent need for more intensive research of this disease that has taken the lives of nearly one million American women over the last forty years. Soon after, I was joined by several members of Congress in starting a Congressional campaign to eradicate breast cancer. We began by introducing a Senate resolution urging the Secretary of Health and Human Services to declare breast cancer a public health emergency. The Resolution raised public awareness about this dreaded disease and sent a strong message that the investigation into the cause, treatment, and prevention of the cancer needed to be accelerated.
In 1997, I supported a bill to create a special stamp, the proceeds of which would go to the fight against breast cancer. In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service issued the Breast Cancer Research Stamp - the first U.S. stamp to have its net proceeds above the cost of postage earmarked for a research organization or cause. Since the stamp became available, more than 695 million have been sold, raising over $50 million for breast cancer research. The stamp was originally authorized to be sold until July 29, 2000. Due to the overwhelming success of the stamp, an effort was launched to extend the program's life. I was an original cosponsor of the Breast Cancer Research Stamp Reauthorization Act of 2000 and subsequent legislation that has extended the program until December 2007. Currently, I am the cosponsor of a bill to allow these stamps to continue to be sold to support breast cancer research until December 2009.
Three million American women are living with breast cancer, and an estimated 266,471 new cases of invasive breast cancer are diagnosed each year. According to the National Cancer Institute, 1 out of every 8 women -- or 14.2 percent -- in the United States will develop breast cancer in her lifetime, and of these women 47 percent will die within 20 years of diagnosis. The disease kills more than 43,000 American women each year, it is the leading cancer among American women, and it is second only to lung cancer in cancer deaths. We have no choice but to continue our fight against this dreadful disease.
The creation of the Medicare program in 1965 was a tremendous accomplishment. With Medicare, for the first time Seniors could count on financial assistance from the government for their hospital and doctors visits, medical equipment and home health care. Because of this program older Americans would never again have to face a terrifying future with no health care coverage. And since that time, millions of elderly and disabled citizens have come to know and trust the quality health care that Medicare ensures them.
Unfortunately over the past few years Medicare premiums for seniors have skyrocketed. the Social Security COLA Protection Act that would ensure that no more than 25 percent of a beneficiary's annual Social Security COLA could be taken away by increases in Medicare premiums. This bill will ensure that seniors retain a majority of their COLA to cover price increases in other goods and services such as food, clothing and housing.
What's New: Implementation of the Prescription Drug and Medicare Improvement Act
While Senator Leahy opposed the bill that created this program because it does more for drug companies than our country's seniors, the Administration's poor implementation of the benefit is now a primary concern. An example of this is a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued May 3, 2006 which found that callers to the Medicare helpline seeking assistance in signing up for or understanding the new benefit have routinely been given inaccurate and incomplete information. The confusion surrounding this program is unacceptable given that the Administration has had over 2 years to prepare to implement the program and to explain the details to seniors, pharmacists, and health care providers.
May 15, 2006 was the final day to enroll in the Medicare prescription drug plan without being charged a permanent financial penalty. Seniors who have not signed up must now wait until November 15, 2006 and will pay a penalty each month for coverage that would begin January 1, 2007. Over the past several months, Senator Leahy has made repeated efforts to extend this deadline and allow seniors to sign up until the end of 2006. Senator Leahy is a cosponsor of S.1841, a bill that would allow seniors to sign up until the end of 2006 with no financial penalty.
In this section:
Veterans Healthcare | Veterans Spending
Honoring Our Veterans And Their Needs
I believe that it is essential that our nation does everything possible to honor its veterans.
Ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as interventions across the globe, mean that the country is producing more veterans every day. These brave men and women must know that the country will honor their sacrifice when they return.
Recognizing their service not only means paying continual tribute through services on such holidays as Memorial Day and Veterans Day. It also means ensuring that our veterans in Vermont and across the country have adequate healthcare through the Veterans Administration (VA).
Veterans Healthcare in Vermont
Many of Vermont's more than 60,000 veterans access healthcare through the VA Medical Center at White River Junction. This hospital is one of the nation's best veterans medical centers. Last year, the VA awarded the medical center its highest quality award, the Robert W. Carey Quality Achievement Award. The VA also decided to make a substantial long-term investment in the center, keeping White River off the list of hospitals slated for closure as part of its ongoing so-called CARES process.
Almost five years ago, the White River Junction VA Medical Center faced a crisis that threatened the high-quality care delivered at the facility. In late 1999, members of the Veterans Administration announced a decision to close the inpatient surgical unit at the hospital. Further, funding shortages were on the verge of affecting the entire facility.
I joined with other members of Vermont's congressional delegation to write the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and block the closure of the inpatient surgical unit. I also worked with other senators across New England to encourage the VA to release additional, emergency funding into the region's veterans healthcare network. The combined efforts of the 12 New England senators forced the Veterans Administration to change its funding distribution formula to better reflect the realities of providing care in our region. The additional funding for New England, and changes in funding distribution, have directly benefited White River Junction, which has received much-needed resource increases.
As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over veterans healthcare, I have worked to secure almost $30 million over the past four years to go directly to White River Junction VA Medical Center. This funding has allowed the hospital to make critical renovations, purchase new equipment (like a new noninvasive vascular ultrasound), expand the surgical unit, and ensure the center's success.
National Veterans Spending
While the funding situation has improved substantially in Vermont, more must be done on a national level to ensure the entire veterans delivery network remains strong.
Last year, the Senate added almost $2.4 billion to the Veterans Administration budget request. Yet more than 60,000 veterans across the country remain on waitlists. Other veterans with non-service connected disabilities have been excluded from the system entirely.
Unfortunately, the President's budget request for 2005 remains inadequate. The Administration's proposal includes only a $500 million funding increase. An independent panel, composed of such major veterans associations as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and the Vietnam Veterans of America has recommended a far more substantial increase to ensure adequate care for all veterans.
The budget request also includes unreasonable plans to charge non-service-connected veterans higher drug co-payments and onerous user fees. I oppose these counterproductive requests and would like substantial increasea to the veterans healthcare budget.
Scientists have shown that embryonic stem cells, which have the ability to develop into virtually any cell in the body, have the potential to treat medical conditions such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and cancer. This promising research has previously only been conducted in the private sector, without the federal government's guidance or financial support. In August, 2001, President Bush announced his limited support for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, and the National Institutes of Health have awarded some grants to scientists working with the stem cell lines that meet the Administration's narrow criteria for support.
In the past six years, however, scientists have learned that the stem cell lines currently available for study will not be suitable for substantive research. The lives of Americans who are suffering from life-threatening and debilitating conditions depend on U.S. leadership in this groundbreaking research. Senator Leahy has joined with many of his colleagues to cosponsor S.5, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007. This legislation would increase the number of stem cell lines available for research and the amount of funding that is available for this work.
What's New: Stem Cells
On January 11, 2007 the House of Representatives passed legislation to expand research on stem cells. This legislation is identical to a bill that both the House and the Senate passed during the 109th Congress but was vetoed by the President. This bill would help U.S. researchers expand their efforts to discover lifesaving cures and treatments. The Senate is expected to soon pass its version of the House bill and then the legislation will be sent to the President.