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Public Statements

Prescription Drug and Medicare Improvement Act of 2003

Location: Washington, DC



    Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, before my esteemed colleague from New Mexico leaves the floor, I commend him for his leadership on the issues related to mental health and mental health parity. No one has been more of a champion than the Senator from New Mexico on these issues related to mental health. I have been pleased since being in the Senate to cosponsor those efforts. I congratulate the Senator and urge him on as we work to provide mental health parity which is another very important health care issue we need to address in the Senate.

    I will speak in general as it relates to this debate regarding prescription drug coverage and Medicare. Seeing my friend from Wyoming, I commend the Senator from Wyoming, Senator Enzi, who spoke on an amendment dealing with community pharmacies which is important to pass. I am supportive of it.

    I did not have a chance to say that yesterday and wanted to take a moment today to commend him for his work. Part of providing choice for seniors is to make sure they can have the same choice from their community pharmacy as mail order and a number of other issues dealing with the importance of community pharmacies. Congratulations for his work in this area.

    I take a moment to speak about my perspective relating to where we are and the issues of Medicare and many of the comments I have been hearing this morning that I respectfully share a difference on. I believe millions of Americans who have benefitted from Medicare have a different perspective about the choice of traditional Medicare—dependability, reliability, ability to choose your own doctor, the fact it has been there for our seniors and people with disabilities since 1965—have a different view versus wading through the insurance bureaucracies. There are lots of bureaucracies we can talk about, but certainly Medicare is not alone in having a bureaucracy. Anyone who has had to wade through insurance forms or attempted to wade through questions from our insurance companies certainly would not say that is less bureaucratic or less paperwork. I find it interesting to hear comments lauding the process of working through insurance companies. If you ask anyone when they have a claim of any kind whether or not that is a streamlined, easy process, usually it is not.

    When I hear about how traditional Medicare does not cover preventive services or has not been updated to cover other services, it is very important to note that it could. Traditional Medicare can cover preventive services. Since arriving in the House of Representatives in 1997, we have gone from paying for mammograms every other year to paying for mammograms every year. We have added other screenings. We can continue to do that. There is nothing about prevention that cannot be done through traditional Medicare. There is nothing relating to coordination that cannot be done through traditional Medicare.

    I am in a fee-for-service health plan myself through Blue Cross/Blue Shield, an integrated plan. I am able in a fee-for-service plan to have integration. We can do that, if we want to do that, if we want to strengthen Medicare. The question is where we want to go with health care. If we want to strengthen traditional Medicare, we add preventive measures. We do prescription drug benefit within Medicare so it is coordinated. We are certainly not adding to the coordinated nature of Medicare by saying you can receive an integrated health care approach through an HMO or PPO or other plans, but we are going to, instead, offer only private insurance if it is available in your community. You can't have an integrated approach through traditional Medicare.

    That is a conscious policy choice. It is not that you can't.

    What we are really debating here is the very same debate that we had before Medicare came into being. I urge colleagues to go back and look at the Congressional Record and read the debate about what occurred before 1965. There were two different philosophies. So many years later it is interesting to me the very same two philosophies exist.

    One philosophy, at that time, that of my Republican colleagues, is we should not have Medicare. It is a big Government program. What we should have is private insurance. People should buy from private insurance. At that time about half the seniors in the country could not find private insurance. Much like today, in many parts of the country it was not available to them. Certainly, prescription-only policies are difficult to find. Certainly, in Michigan an HMO is hard to find. If you live anywhere but metro Detroit, you don't have an option such as that. So, much like today, it was not available or not affordable. So the decision was made. It was championed by the Democrats in the Congress. I am proud of that. They were joined by, I believe, 12 Republican Members at the time who voted to make the decision, as an American value, that we were going to make sure older Americans and people with disabilities had access to health care they could afford, quality health care, and they would have access to it regardless of where they lived in the United States.

    That was an important value statement made in 1965. I think it is fair to say it has radically changed and improved the quality of life for millions, tens of millions of American citizens, that decision in 1965.

    Since that time, it is absolutely true that health care has changed. Boy, has it changed. There are exciting new things that have happened. There are new treatments. There are new miracle drugs. You can take a pill instead of having heart surgery. Our esteemed leader of the Senate talked about those changes and certainly we all agree with those changes.

    The question is, Do we change and improve and strengthen Medicare to reflect that, or do we move to a different system? That is a conscious choice. We can absolutely do everything that is being talked about here through traditional Medicare if we choose to do that.

    Mr. President, 89 percent of the seniors are under traditional Medicare; 11 percent have chosen to go into managed care available in their area. I share the desire to make sure options are available to seniors at their choice.

    But to somehow say we have to abandon the insurance system called Medicare that has worked because it is outdated is not accurate. The accurate statement is we choose not to update Medicare. We choose not to strengthen and modernize Medicare because we want to go back to the private sector, private for-profit insurance and managed care. That is a conscious choice. I find it interesting that is the very same debate that took place when Medicare started.

    Again, there is a difference in philosophy of different parties. I believe we have seen the philosophy at work back since the mid-1990s to weaken Medicare, so it is easier to criticize. What do I mean by that?

    We had a Speaker of the House, a well-known Speaker back in the mid-1990s, say we cannot eliminate Medicare directly—I am paraphrasing—but, instead, we will let it wither on the vine.

    At that time, there was a lot of strong support for going to managed care, HMOs, under Medicare. At that time the person who now leads the Center for Medicare and Medicaid said there would be a California gold rush into managed care. People would be leaving in droves, going to managed care because it was so much better than traditional Medicare.

    In fact, that did not happen. In the areas where it did happen, such as Michigan—which I have talked about many times on the Senate floor—we have had over 35,000 seniors dropped because the private HMO made the business decision to pull out of the market and not to cover Medicare beneficiaries anymore. Those individuals went back into traditional Medicare.

    But what happened in the 1990s? We had a balanced budget agreement. I believed it was important. I supported that in 1997. But since that time, we have seen cuts, very deep cuts, deeper than we were told would happen, to providers who cover Medicare beneficiaries, people who provide critical home health services, people who provide critical nursing home coverage; our hospitals, our teaching hospitals, our doctors, nurses, physical therapists—all of those who provide health care. We have seen deep, deep cuts.

    We have seen rural hospitals and urban hospitals closing. We have seen tremendous cutbacks, more paperwork, less funding. We have seen a crisis. Again, this was due to policy decisions to pull money away from Medicare, to underfund Medicare. My concern is that essentially Medicare has been set up by underfunding it, and then those who do not support Medicare saying: See, it doesn't work; not funding preventive care and saying: See, we don't fund preventive care. See, it is too bureaucratic. All those things could be fixed if there was a commitment to Medicare, if there was a commitment to a program that is a great American success story.

    Let me just say in conclusion—I see colleagues on the Senate floor I know wish to speak—I think it is important in this debate that we be very honest with the American people about what the real debate is. It is not that Medicare has failed. It is not that Medicare cannot be improved upon and modernized. The debate is a philosophical one, an ideological one. There is a difference in view where those now in the majority believed, before Medicare, and believe now, that we are better off with a private for-profit insurance company model.

    I am also deeply concerned when I continue to hear that somehow we cannot afford to continue with Medicare anymore because of the demographics. I have two points about that. I said this before, but the evidence is overwhelming. Medicare's administrative costs are less, and they are growing at a slower rate. Its costs are less right now than those of managed care HMOs. Every independent study shows there is no evidence that when you bring in a private for-profit insurance company that needs to make a profit because they are in the private sector, the for-profit side of the world, that somehow that brings more money for health care—when they have to take a piece of that for administrative costs and for profit, and so on. In fact, it is just the opposite. The majority of health care in this country, the majority of hospitals, the majority of home health agencies and nursing homes are nonprofit so that every dollar goes into health care because health care is not an option. It is a critical necessity for our people. That is really the debate.

    The other piece of the debate is another question of values and priorities. We continue to see trillions of dollars being given in tax cuts as a priority to a privileged few in this country, instead of focusing on shoring up and modernizing health care with a real, comprehensive prescription drug benefit, and instead of investing in education and innovation in our country to grow the economy through greater productivity. These are conscious choices. The fact that this is not a very good benefit and the fact we are limited in scope is a conscious choice by this body, by this Congress, and by this President, which says Medicare and health care is not as important as another round, and what will be coming, another round and another round of tax cuts for the privileged few of this country.

    I will just say in conclusion that as we speak I believe we need to talk about the fact that these are conscious choices being made. I for one believe all the evidence shows we can strengthen and modernize and update Medicare in a way that our seniors want, need, and deserve.

    I yield the floor.


    Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, I thank my friend and colleague from Montana, who is working hard overall on this legislation. We appreciate his work.

    I came to the floor today to join with colleagues to support this amendment and to commend the Senator from New Hampshire and the Senator from Massachusetts for their joint leadership on the committee of jurisdiction and on this very important amendment.

    I think one of the most important actions we can take to lower prescription drug prices for everyone is this amendment. Making the marketplace work, making competition work, allowing, once a patent is completed, for a generic drug—or, as we say in Michigan, an unadvertised brand—to have the opportunity to go on the market, to be able to manufacture that drug and drop the price, I think is very significant.

    It is very important that we adopt the provisions in this amendment that relate to enforcement and the 30-month stay.

    We have had in Michigan for the last couple of years a very important coalition with Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the Detroit Regional Chamber, and the Grand Rapids Chamber. I just came from a meeting in my office with representatives from the chambers, with other businesses, and those in the community who understand we have to get a handle on the explosion of prescription drug prices, and it is critically important we have competition to bring those prices down.

    We know the average brand-name product is going up about three times the rate of inflation. We also know it is very costly to invest in new breakthrough drugs. We have many policies on the books to support and subsidize, through the taxpayers, new breakthrough lifesaving medication and to get it to market.

    There is important research done in my State of Michigan, of which I am very proud, through those working in Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo and many other parts of Michigan, which has made a real difference in our lives.

    Also, after we help fund the National Institutes of Health research, we allow companies tax deductions and credits for research, and we give them up to a 20-year patent so they can recover their costs from their investments in critical research and then the opportunity to bring these products to market.

    The deal with the American taxpayers is once that process of subsidizing and support is finished, that formula, that information is supposed to be available for companies that do not do research—companies that have been called generic drug companies—to manufacture that medicine at a cheaper price. They do not do the research so, by definition, it can be done at a cheaper price. We know that anywhere from 30 percent—I have seen prices that were 70 percent lower. There is a wide range in the ability to bring down prices by having this system work.

    We also know that, unfortunately, there have been cases where the system has not worked, where companies have gamed the system or manipulated the system to stop these lower-cost medications from going on the market.

    This amendment will close the loopholes and hopefully better enable the system to work so we can have the benefit as consumers, as American taxpayers, of the investments we have made in helping to bring new drugs to the market and have the benefit of being able to afford those products once that medicine comes to the market.

    I am very pleased and appreciate the hard work everyone on both sides of the aisle has been involved in to bring this legislation forward. I have spoken many times on the floor about what I believe to be the two goals of Medicare prescription drug coverage and lowering prices for everyone. This amendment is part of lowering the prices for everyone.

    I commend everyone involved and urge support of the amendment.

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