MEDICARE IMPROVEMENT FOR PATIENTS AND PROVIDERS ACT OF 2008--MOTION TO PROCEED -- (Senate - June 12, 2008)
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Mr. CHAMBLISS. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.
Mr. CHAMBLISS. Mr. President, I rise today to talk about how Congress can take action to provide relief to American families who are really feeling the pain at the pump due to high gas prices.
Obviously, this is a very complex issue and requires a multipronged strategy to respond. But the base price of gasoline reflects the principles of supply and demand. Asian economies continue to boom, creating soaring demand for oil. At the same time, many oil-producing regions are curbing output. These factors can create a perfect storm that leads to historic high prices for the price of crude oil and the resulting prices at the pump we see today.
I believe we must find both short-term and long-term solutions to provide energy security for our Nation and give relief to the unprecedented gas prices we are experiencing today.
Republicans and Democrats recently came together and passed a piece of legislation, with my vote, to suspend the filling of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve until the end of the year. This was an attempt to provide a short-term solution to high gas prices at the pump by dealing with the supply side of the issue. It is a bill that passed with strong bipartisan support.
The Strategic Petroleum Reserve has the capacity of 727 million barrels of oil and currently holds just over 700 million barrels. The United States had been filling this Reserve to the tune of about 70,000 barrels per day.
This was the right thing to do for several reasons: first, because we should not be buying the most expensive oil ever and simply putting it in the ground; secondly, because it will leave a little more oil on the market, which will hopefully alleviate prices somewhat; and third, because it shows that Congress recognizes that increasing the supply of oil in the market can have an impact on the price of oil. Finally, it sends a message to energy markets that Congress can take action and thereby reduce speculation, which certainly has been a participant in the rising price of oil.
Congress also acted in a bipartisan manner to address a component of the long-term solution to energy security by enacting the Energy Independence and Security Act in December of last year. This legislation, again with my support, was an attempt to provide a long-term solution to high gas prices by dealing with the demand side of the issue.
This legislation contains an aggressive new renewable fuels standard that requires fuel producers to include a certain amount of alternative fuel in their product. I am excited about the significant opportunity this provides for Georgia, which has not been a large producer of biofuels in the past, to participate in the development of renewable fuel sources.
The renewable fuel standard requires 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels in American motor fuels by 2022. I think it was the right thing to do to require 21 billion of the 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels to come from advanced biofuels. This means instead of corn-based ethanol, we will be making fuels from cellulose such as wood chips, peanut hulls, and switchgrass.
This emphasis on biofuels is consistent with legislation I introduced last year to increase the amount of advanced biofuels and gasoline. This is also very consistent with the farm bill that passed this body. In the energy title in that farm bill, of which I was particularly excited about and remain excited, what we did was to induce the manufacture of additional amounts of ethanol in this country. But the production of ethanol from corn has had unintended consequences--we have seen the price of food products increase. It hasn't just been corn-based food products as a result of the high demand for corn. We have seen more corn planted, which means the demand for wheat, soybeans, peanuts, as well as other commodities, has increased and driven up the price because farmers are simply planting more corn due to the high price. It looks as if the demand is going to be there for a long time to come.
So in this farm bill, what we did was to incentivize the production of ethanol not from corn but from cellulosic-based products, whether it is peanut hulls, switchgrass, pine trees, or who knows. In my part of the world, we have a vine culled kudzu that grows rampant across Georgia, and there is not much use for it. One of these days we may even see a biodegradable product, such as kudzu, become available for the manufacture of ethanol. It is a serious problem, and in the farm bill we sought to address the additional production of ethanol through cellulosic-based products.
I wish to read a couple pieces of correspondence I have received from constituents of mine which further emphasizes the intensity of this problem, the seriousness of this problem, and the fact that all of a sudden families are simply not able to incorporate into their budget this huge increase in gasoline prices in such a short period of time.
Deanna Payne of Winder, GA, writes as follows:
Senator Chambliss: Due to the high cost of gas, I am having to cut down on groceries and visit local food banks. My husband makes the same amount of money he did in 2007, but we just can't make ends meet. Gas prices have doubled the cost of some of the grocery items I used to purchase. I just can't do it. Please give us some relief! This is ridiculous! Americans are going hungry and losing everything!
Another constituent from Augusta writes:
I am very concerned about rising gas prices and what if anything Congress plans to do to help Americans. I cannot afford to fill up my vehicle at these rates which today are approaching $4. My husband is a platoon sergeant training troops at Fort Gordon. I work at the Medical College of Georgia. We have a combined income of over $70,000. It is becoming harder and harder to put any money aside. Not only is the cost of gas rising, but the cost to heat and cool our home and the cost of groceries are all making it difficult to make ends meet. My husband re-enlisted in September 2007. We as a family came to the decision that even during this time of war, the Army was the only guarantee of a paycheck and health care coverage for the next few years. I hope that Congress is putting aside its partisan issues and working together to help all Americans, as I feel our Nation will soon fall apart at the rate it is going now.
A constituent from Montrose, GA, writes:
Please work to help us with the prices of gas and its effects on every household's budget. We should be drilling anywhere and everywhere to alleviate this current situation. The brightest in this country need to be assembled and given the resources to come up with alternative energy sources. We need to have the Nation go to a 4-day work week starting with government agencies leading the way by example. These problems have been gradually getting worse all along with nothing getting done. Steps better be taken soon before this country gets into a position that it can't recover from. Thank you.
From Douglasville, GA:
I am a single mother of 3. I had to take $20 out of my grocery money to pay for gas just to get to work. That is the only place I drive. The kids and I walk to our local stores if needed. This is not the American Dream, or the way we are supposed to live in the great United States! I can't afford a new car that is better on gas. I already drive a 4 cylinder. SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE!
I am sure the Presiding Officer has dozens and dozens of these same types of letters in his office, and it is a further indication of the fact that Americans truly are hurting at the gas pump. It is imperative we provide the leadership in Washington that reacts from a short-term standpoint but, more importantly, looks to the long-term solution to this problem. It is going to be very difficult to reduce gas prices in this short term, but I think, without question, if we implement today long-term policies, we will see an immediate reaction by oil-producing countries and we will see an immediate effect on gas prices and I think, without question, we will see a lowering of those gas prices, to a certain extent.
But the important matter is we have to address the issue. As I look around this body and see the rhetoric going back and forth on both sides of the aisle, I don't see solutions coming out. I see blame being placed. I see political statements being made. I think it is time we put those political statements aside, we put partisan politics aside, and we, sure enough, try to reach an accord for some commonsense solutions to a problem that is having a direct effect on constituents of Republicans and constituents of Democrats alike. It is time we make sure we address this problem for the long term, incorporate the multifaceted issues that are involved, and that we come together and make sure we are doing the work the people sent us to do. I don't see that happening today, and that is what I am hearing from my constituents back home.
So I hope, as we move forward over the next several days before we adjourn for the Fourth of July week break, when we are all going to be back home and we are going to continue to hear these issues raised, we can say: Here is what we are prepared to do in a bipartisan way to solve this problem and to make sure we don't continue to be dependent on foreign petroleum imports, to the tune of 62 percent of our needs; that we are taking action to address that imbalance, and we are taking action to implement measures to ensure that alternative fuels are developed, that the research is put in place to provide those alternative fuels at the gas pump, which will help drive the price down, and that we are prepared to implement conservation measures and implore the American people to also think about that from the standpoint of the implementation of conservation measures. If we don't do it ourselves, it is difficult for us to ask the American people to do it.
So I do hope the leadership in this body, on both sides of the aisle, is listening to the American people and is cognizant of the fact that people across America simply don't think we are doing anything and that partisan politics is not allowing us to do anything; that we address that issue; that we find long-term solutions which will help in the short term as well as the long term; and that we seek positive legislation coming forward from both sides of the aisle to address this problem immediately.
With that, I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.
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Mr. CHAMBLISS. Mr. President, I rise today to speak on the issue of Medicare reimbursement for doctors. Doctors are reimbursed through Medicare by a formula known as the sustainable growth rate, SGR. Due to the formula's methodology, it has mandated physician fee cuts in recent years. This has forced Congress to place a band-aid over the possible cuts that doctors and their practices have hanging over their heads.
So every year, or now 6 months, doctors must come to Washington, DC and plead with their Representatives and Senators to pass legislation that will allow them to receive the adequate Medicare reimbursement they need.
Medicare reimbursement is already well below the actual cost of providing patient services, and physicians tell me every year that if these cuts go into effect, they will be faced with the tough decision of either laying off employees or no longer treating Medicare patients, or both.
Oftentimes, we in Congress wait until the last possible moment of each year to pass legislation that will provide these physicians with their much-needed relief. While we all know that there is a need to replace the current SGR formula, this afternoon I want to focus on the relevant legislation pending before the Senate.
The bill before the Senate would alleviate the 10.6 percent physician fee cut and replace it with a 1.1 percent increase over 18 months. I support this element of the legislation and believe that an 18-month fix will not only keep physicians from worrying that their reimbursements will be cut, but will also give Congress time to look at possible alternatives to the SGR.
However, I do not agree with other aspects of this legislation. First and foremost, the President has threatened to veto this legislation. In December of last year, we passed legislation that would remove the SGR cuts until June 30 of this year.
Even if this legislation had overwhelming support, which it does not, the process of this bill passing both Houses, getting vetoed by the President, and returning for a veto override would be quite a feat to accomplish in 18 days, and simply cannot practically happen.
Second, this legislation expands entitlement spending such as the Part D Low-Income Subsidy and Medicare Savings Program. While these are good programs, I do not understand why we would expand these programs when there are already significant numbers of seniors who are eligible for the programs at current levels but are not enrolled.
This is not the time to expand entitlement spending when it is already out of control and unsustainable.
Here we are trying to put a bandaid on reimbursement to our doctors and, at the same time, talking about additional expenditures in Medicare, so that the next year when we come back, it is going to be even harder if we don't have a permanent fix to use this bandaid approach for physicians and hospitals.
Third, this legislation reduces access to Medicare advantage plans.
These plans aren't perfect, but Medicare Advantage has been the one reform in the Medicare system we have seen that works. It needs some modification to it, but the fact is it is working.
These plans, which are approved by medicare, save beneficiaries an average of $86 per month compared to premiums in traditional fee-for-service medicare. They have been especially important in enrolling low-income and rural beneficiaries.
We should have learned from past congresses' mistakes that cutting payments to medicare advantage plans results in them being forced to drop seniors. In my home State of Georgia, more than 138,000 beneficiaries rely on these plans.
Senator GRASSLEY has introduced alternative legislation that would provide physicians with the exact same 1.1 percent fee increase that is included in the pending legislation. And it would do this while eliminating duplicative indirect medical education payments to medicare advantage plans, making reforms to curb controversial and abusive medicare advantage marketing practices, and spending 25 percent less than the pending legislation.
Most importantly, this alternative legislation would not be vetoed by the President and could be signed into law before the July 1 deadline. Unfortunately, the majority will not allow us to bring this legislation to the floor. I hope that decision changes.
Doctors and seniors deserve a serious and responsible effort that addresses the impending fee cut without playing politics, cutting essential services, and creating a major expansion of entitlement spending.
It is my hope that Congress will work toward a bipartisan agreement that will provide doctors with the relief they need before July 1.
With that, I yield the floor.
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