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Public Statements

Prescription Drug and Medicare Improvement Act of 2003 - Continued

Location: Washington, DC



    Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, I believe this is an incredibly important vote. This amendment really is about providing seniors with what they are asking. The seniors of this country, and those who are disabled, deserve our best effort. As we come together we have been spending this time putting together prescription drug coverage for seniors, debating about how to lower prices, and the Durbin amendment—which I am pleased to cosponsor—does just that. I believe the Durbin amendment is our best effort. That is what seniors are asking for.

    They are not asking for more insurance forms to wade through. Most of them are not asking for more choice. They are asking for prescription drug coverage.

    I was talking to someone today at lunchtime who is on Medicare. He said to me, Whatever you do, please do not do anything to Medicare. It is simple; it is easy; it is dependable; they handle my secondary insurance.

    He said, I actually have a 1-800 number I call and a real person answers the phone.

    He was going on and on talking about how successful and how helpful Medicare has been for him.

    I said, Boy, I would love to have you come to the floor and share this with my colleagues, because we keep hearing about how awful the traditional Medicare system is.

    The conversation I had with the gentleman at noon reflects what I commonly hear at home. As I said before, the seniors of this country consider Medicare—and I wish we would consider Medicare—a great American success story.

    Why is the Durbin amendment the best effort we can provide? Why is it the best we can give to our seniors?

    First of all, working within the dollars that have been put aside in the budget resolution, this does not require any additional funds. But, by doing this, by putting the priority on our seniors and those receiving the health care, by making that the focus, that the priority, you can create a very different benefit if your priority is to start with: What do our seniors need? What do those who are disabled need? Let's start with a system that is designed for them.

    When we do that, we can create a system that does not have any deductible, no deductible at all. We can create a system that guarantees what the premium will be. Not a suggested premium like we have in the underlying bill, but we can say it is $35 a month; it is guaranteed; it is in the law. Seniors will know what to count on and what to claim for.

    We can do a better job on cost savings. Instead of saying we will cover 50 percent of the cost, we can cover 70 percent. That is a big difference—70 percent of the cost.

    We can make sure there is no coverage gap. In fact, no one will lose their benefits, their help with their medical payments, as they move up with greater and greater bills. The higher the bill, the more they would continue to get help.

    One of the reasons this can be done is because there is a real effort to get the best possible price for our seniors. The real issue in all of this debate—and the reason we have all this convoluted, complicated process that has been going on—is the pharmaceutical industry wants to make sure all the seniors are not in one plan where they can negotiate a big group discount as with any other insurance plan. We know the veterans of this country do not pay retail because the VA gets a group discount. Well, the Durbin amendment would give our seniors that group discount. And if you do that, you can lower prices. It is still a fair return, but you can lower prices, and use those savings to provide a better benefit, to make sure there is no deductible, to make sure there is no gap in coverage for our seniors.

    We also can deal with a very important issue for many of us; that is the question of employer benefits. We want to make sure our employers do not have the incentive to drop benefits. There are many people in my great State of Michigan who I have worked with in our great auto industry, and other manufacturing industries, and others that have good benefits now. We are grateful to the employers in the industries involved, and they have a history of good benefits, good wages, and good employees, I might add. We are very proud of the work that goes on in Michigan.

    Now that many of our Michiganites have retired, we want to make sure we provide incentives for employers to maintain those benefits. Those lifesaving benefits are absolutely critical. And we know that in the underlying bill, unfortunately, the projection is there will be an incentive for many employers to drop or reduce benefits, which is not acceptable.

    What we have in this option, in this best offer that is in front of us, is the ability to count the employer benefits toward out-of-pocket spending, which is an encouragement for employers to continue to provide the benefits they currently provide to their retirees.

    Under the Durbin amendment, you would have the option of a private plan. If you would like to go into an HMO or PPO, if that is a positive experience for you, you have that choice. But it also makes sure there is a Medicare choice always, that you have an opportunity to stay within Medicare.

    Then one of the most important parts of this amendment is the fact that it would take effect as soon as possible. I think one of my concerns is with all of the talk and all the news reports about a new prescription drug benefit, it is not clear to our seniors that, in fact, no help in terms of a benefit is available until 2006. There is a discount card, yes, but nothing in terms of the bill taking full effect until 2006. So this amendment would say "as soon as possible." As soon as possible we want to make sure this takes effect.

    The Durbin amendment puts forward our best effort. It is a better benefit. It is a defined benefit so there is dependability. It reduces prescription drug costs. It maintains choice for those who wish to have another choice other than traditional Medicare. It creates a reliable Medicare benefit fallback if you choose private insurance. If your private carrier drops you, such as happened to my mother with her Medicare+Choice plan, you would always be able to have Medicare as a permanent choice for you if that happens. We incentivize employers to maintain benefits. And, finally, the Medicare-delivered benefit can be implemented faster.

    There is a lot of good work and good will among all of our colleagues to try to develop and pass a prescription drug benefit here in the Senate. I believe our seniors deserve the very best we can offer, something that is straightforward, is dependable, is reliable—a system that is based on what is best for them, not what is best for insurance companies or pharmaceutical companies or any other interest but what is best for them.

    Medicare has been a great American success story. It works. It just needs to be updated. It just needs to be modernized to cover prescription drugs. I believe it also should be modernized to cover more preventive efforts and other kinds of improvements that will continue to strengthen Medicare and allow it to modernize and improve with the times.

    We can do that. We can do that without going to a complicated, convoluted system that focuses more and more on efforts that ultimately could privatize Medicare.

    I urge my colleagues to join in support of the Durbin amendment. Give our seniors what they are asking for.

    I will share with my colleagues a chart I have used many times on this floor. Right now, 89 percent of the seniors of this country are in Medicare. They are asking—I am very confident they are asking—for the Durbin amendment. I encourage my colleagues to support it.

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