Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, 24 years ago, Ronald Reagan was running for President and he asked each of us as Americans a question: Are you better off than you were 4 years ago?
It was the right question then, and it is the right question now. Are we better off than we were 4 years ago? This is a very important question. Unfortunately, for most middle-income Americans in 2004, the answer is clearly no.
What has happened in the last 4 years while wages have been flat, gas prices, college tuition, health care costs have skyrocketed, millions of jobs have been lost, poverty is on the rise, the budget surplus has been squandered, the Social Security trust fund has been raided, State taxes have risen, household debt has gone way up, consumer confidence has dropped, and the stock market has gone down.
We can look at a few of these areas with average weekly earnings flat at slightly over 1 percent; gas prices certainly in Michigan and around the country skyrocketing, going up and up; college tuition; family health care premiums-these are just three measures of what is happening to our families and what is commonly called the middle-class squeeze where families are not seeing their incomes go up, and yet all of the costs of providing opportunity for their children, of being able to meet the daily costs of living are going up and up.
Today I want to talk specifically about just one of those, and that is the family health care premiums. Since President Bush took office, family health care premiums have risen more than $2,700. The average cost of a family plan is now above $9,000. Workers have to pay about $2,400 of that premium out of their own pockets, in addition to paying deductibles and copays.
That is a tremendous amount of money for most families, especially at a time when they are facing higher costs in so many other areas. Much of this increase has to do with the soaring cost of prescription drugs, which I have come to the Senate floor to speak about on many occasions. The cost of prescription drugs-and this is brand-name drugs-is rising at about three and a half times the rate of inflation. In fact, we know that for some of the top name- brand drugs we see advertised on television every day, they are actually rising anywhere from 8 to 10 to 12 percent faster than the rate of inflation, which is extraordinary.
The health care system and the business community paying the costs of health care premiums cannot continue to absorb that, and the Medicare prescription drug benefit does next to nothing to rein in escalating costs. In fact, researchers have suggested that the new Medicare law will actually result in new profits for the drug companies of $139 billion over the next 8 years.
So here we are supposedly passing a bill to help seniors that one would hope would lower prices, but instead, because it does not allow Medicare to negotiate group discounts, it locks in up to 40 million people forced to pay the highest possible prices in the country, resulting in $139 billion in new profits over the next 8 years for the pharmaceutical industries and continual struggles for our seniors who literally are choosing between food and medicine.
When President Bush took office, the number of uninsured Americans had actually decreased for 2 straight years. The number of uninsured Americans had actually gone down for 2 straight years. But the dramatic increase in premiums during the Bush administration, combined with the loss of so many jobs, has left 3.8 million more Americans without health insurance. There are now nearly 44 million uninsured Americans, and the consequences are dire for these families and, I would argue, for communities and for businesses as well that end up seeing their health care premium dollars go up every time someone walks into the emergency room sicker than they should be, receiving inappropriate care and having the community hospital have to absorb and transfer that to the folks with insurance.
People without health insurance do not receive the care they need, as I indicated, to prevent or detect or treat serious medical problems. As a result, they are forced to live their lives in poorer health and die younger. Approximately 18,000 people die prematurely each year because they do not have health insurance.
We are the greatest country in the world. Shame on us if we cannot fix this. And we can fix it. It is just a matter of will. It is a matter of values and priorities. We need to turn things around and get this right.
So we come back again to President Reagan's famous question: Are you better off than you were 4 years ago? What has happened in the last 4 years? Again, wages have been flat, if not going down. In my State many folks are losing their jobs, and wages that are being replaced are actually lower. Gas prices are skyrocketing out of sight. College tuition, access to college and the American dream that we all want for our children, has gone up tremendously. Health care costs have skyrocketed, as I mentioned. As a result, our middle-income families are feeling squeezed more and more every day, and Americans are not better off. But we can be better off. We are the United States of America. We are the can-do country, and I know we can get back on track. With a few changes, with the right priorities, with the right values, we can turn this around. We have done it before and we can do it again.
With strong leadership and a real commitment to confronting the problems that families face, we can do better. We can provide our schools and teachers with the support they deserve. We can ensure that every qualified student has the opportunity to attend college. We can build a stronger America so every worker has access to health care and our seniors and the disabled truly have access to their prescription drugs that they need at the lowest possible prices. We can restore the confidence of Americans that our better days are still ahead.
We have much to do. All of these facts, all of these issues, relate to choices, the choices we make as we govern about who we want to make sure is doing better in this country. We can choose between focusing on those things that help Americans, help the public to do better, or the special interests of this country. We need to turn it around so we are putting people first and we are addressing those things that allow each of us to have the opportunity for the great American dream. We are all about working hard, playing by the rules, and being able to go as far as one can possibly go in this great country if they are willing to do the work.
Too many folks are working hard and finding themselves more and more with costs and burdens that are stopping them from being able to fully obtain the American dream for themselves and their families. We are not better off right now, but we can be, and I am hopeful with the right kind of changes that we will be.