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Nomination of Michael O. Leavitt to be Secretary of Health and Human Services

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, I rise today to discuss the nomination of former EPA Administrator and Utah Governor Michael Leavitt to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

I respect Governor Leavitt. He and I have enjoyed a good working relationship when he was the EPA administrator. Governor Leavitt always kept an open door, and he worked closely with me on important Michigan issues such as Canadian trash and air quality standards.

But today, he stands ready to take a new role. This is an immense honor and carries even greater responsibility. HHS oversees many of the agencies that affect Americans' lives the most. For example, the Secretary oversees Medicare and Medicaid, which covers over 70 million people, from children and mothers to seniors and the disabled. The National Institutes of Health drives our Nation's biomedical research, and the Food and Drug Administration works to make sure what we eat is safe.

Unfortunately, HHS also has a series of missteps. In today's Washington Post, we learned that HHS, like the Department of Education, paid a journalist to write supportive statements about administration policy in her column. This is on top of findings that HHS improperly used federal money for political purposes. HHS officials also stopped the CMS actuary from giving important information to Congress about the true cost of the Medicare drug bill. I urge Governor Leavitt to work to correct these abuses.

I intend to vote to confirm Governor Leavitt, but I do want to use this opportunity to raise some major concerns about health care. First, I am concerned about Governor Leavitt's position on Medicaid. My State has made great strides in stretching each Medicaid dollar, including an innovative drug purchasing plan with other States.

We should encourage States to find innovative ways to save money, but having flexibility and innovation does not mean cutting people's benefits. I am concerned about rumors about ``block granting'' Medicaid. That would be a dangerous proposition to our most vulnerable populations that rely on this important State-Federal partnership.

Second, we need to have a full and open debate about reimportation. Last Congress, I was deeply disappointed that after numerous bipartisan attempts to bring the issue of drug reimportation to the Senate floor, the leadership blocked a fair discussion on a sensible way to bring down drug prices. I am glad that my friend and colleague Senator Dorgan secured an agreement with Senators FRIST and ENZI on having a HELP committee hearing on reimportation by April 25.

We urgently need to have a reimportation bill brought to the floor. I am very troubled by allegations of delays while our seniors and businesses pay the price. For example, there are allegations that the administration is putting strong pressure on our neighbors to the north to block reimportation. In fact, we have heard complaints that almost immediately after U.S. trade officials visited Canada in December, the Canadian health minister began looking into ways to block reimportation.

I have heard too many stories from my constituents that without lower priced, FDA-approved drugs from Canada, they would not be able to afford their rent or buy their groceries. In the America that we want for ourselves and our children, no one should ever have to choose between paying their rent or their medicine.

It is unacceptable that they cannot purchase their medicine here in the United States. In this great Nation, a pharmacist in Detroit should be able to do business safely and securely with a pharmacist in Windsor.

I am glad that Governor Leavitt is keeping a more open mind about reimportation than others in the administration ..... so far! In fact, during his nomination hearing in the Finance Committee, he stated: ``If it can be shown that it can be done safely, then it's a discussion we should have.''

I hope Governor Leavitt will continue to keep an open mind as we debate reimportation under the agreement with leadership. Again, we need to have an open debate here in Congress about reimportation.

Finally, I hope that Governor Leavitt would keep an open mind about allowing the Federal Government to negotiate drug purchases on behalf of Medicare.

Even outgoing HHS Secretary Thompson said at his December 3 resignation press conference that he would have liked to have had the opportunity to negotiate lower drug prices.

I know that Secretary-designate Leavitt has said he does not believe that the Secretary should have the power to negotiate with drug manufacturers to secure lower prices for Medicare beneficiaries. Rather, he believes that the Medicare law provides enough safeguards to keep drug prices in check.

How is that possible when researchers at Boston University have found that the pharmaceutical industry will actually make $139 billion more under this plan?

In fact, a recent study published in the prestigious Health Affairs journal found that if Medicare could negotiate and bring drug prices more in line with other nations' costs, we could close the doughnut hole.

I am disappointed that Governor Leavitt does not believe in using the market power of over 40 million people to get the best prices for seniors, the disabled, and the American taxpayer. It is a good market-based solution.

More than ever, we need to work to keep down the costs of drugs. It is hurting our businesses, it is hurting our families, and it is going to hurt every American taxpayer when the new Medicare drug program begins in 2006.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published a sampling of this month's prescription drug price increases, finding that the prices of 31 of the 50 biggest selling medications have increased dramatically since our November elections. These drugs included popular drugs such as the cholesterol-lowering drugs Lipitor and Pravachol; the pain-killer Celebrex; the antidepressant Zoloft; and the blood-thinner Plavix.

One health research group stated that pharmaceutical companies are marking up their prices now in anticipation of the Medicare drug program coming out in 2006.

It is outrageous that Medicare can't negotiate prices just like businesses, states, and even other Federal agencies can.

This is a great nation, and in the past month, we have seen how strong our democracy is. But we also have room for debate and discussion. I urge Governor Leavitt to keep an open mind and to work with all Members of Congress to bring down the cost of prescription drugs for all Americans.

I suggest the absence of a quorum.


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