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Health Care

Location: Washington DC


Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, I rise to lament the fact that we have made no progress in reducing the uninsured since 2001. This is an issue we all need to be working together on because it affects everyone we represent, every family, every business. In fact, nearly 4 million more people are uninsured today than the day this administration took office.

We need to light a fire. We need to have a sense of urgency about getting this done for people. We can do much better than we are doing. We live in the United States of America. We are the greatest, the richest country on the face of the Earth. When we have the will, we can make great things happen. That is what we need to do here.

We enacted Social Security in 1935. This program now serves as our universal retirement, life insurance, and disability insurance system for millions of people. A generation later we passed Medicare, our Nation's universal health plan for seniors and the disabled. Even though I am very concerned about the recent law that we passed and whether it is a step backward-and I believe it is-the fact is, we put in place in 1965 a policy based on a set of values that said, if you are 65 or older, if you are disabled, you are going to receive health care.

Interestingly, at that time, if we go back and read the record, this was viewed as a compromise, a first step. Originally in 1960, what was being debated was health care for everyone. Then when there was not the support to pass that, the compromise was to start with older Americans and with the disabled, to provide health care first to them and then to open it up to all of our citizens. Yet today we are not seeing that happening. It is now time to go the last mile. We need to make sure all Americans have the same access to health insurance that we do in the Senate.

As most colleagues know, approximately 80 percent of the people who don't have health insurance are working-one job, two jobs, three jobs, working very hard to care for their families. They have jobs. They go to work. They play by the rules. Unfortunately, health insurance is so expensive, they can't afford it or the business they work for can't afford it. We need to value the hard work these people are doing. We need to recognize and ensure that if they work for a living, they have the health insurance they need for themselves and their families.

Regrettably, this administration has been basically silent on the uninsured. When members of the administration do speak, they are negative and pessimistic about providing access to affordable health care for all Americans. For example, in January of this year, the National Academy of Sciences said that the President and Congress should work to achieve health insurance coverage for all Americans by 2010. That is a worthy goal, although I would argue too far into the future.

What was the response? The administration's top health official, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said universal health coverage is "not realistic . . . I don't think, administratively or legislatively, it's feasible."

Then 2 months later Secretary Thompson went on to minimize the Nation's uninsured problem by saying:

Even if you don't have health insurance in America, you get taken care of. That could be defined as universal health care.

In other words, just go to the emergency room to get your health care coverage.

In fact, too many people are doing that now. Sometimes you can just get taken care of, but by the time an uninsured patient reaches the emergency room, it is often too late to provide lifesaving health care. Many of the uninsured forgo less costly preventative care and early treatments, getting sicker as what money they have goes for the rent, the car, the kids, and food.

Hospitals in Michigan indicate they have provided over $1 billion in health care for the uninsured, uncompensated care this last year. Think what we could do if we could capture that $1 billion and put it into a system that worked on the front end, that kept people healthy, that provided preventive care, that made sure they could see the doctor in his office or her office rather than having to wait for the emergency room.

We can do better than this in the greatest country in the world. I do not think we should throw in the towel. We should not say we can't do it, it is not feasible. It is time to create the will. The fact is, we can do it, if we pick the right priorities. We can do the same thing we did when we passed Social Security and Medicare-two great American success stories that have provided economic security for people as they grow older and retire and health care for older Americans and the disabled. In my book, that was all about values, about what is important. This certainly is equally important. We should be optimistic. We should join all other modern countries and make sure all Americans have access to affordable health insurance.

One of the reasons more and more families can't get health care is because the costs are spiraling out of control. In fact, from 2000 to 2003, the average annual cost of premiums doubled, making health insurance out of reach for more and more middle-income families and small businesses. In 3 years, the costs have doubled. Medical problems, in fact, were a factor in nearly half of all nonbusiness bankruptcy filings. Overall, health care costs have gone up nearly 14 percent last year. Meanwhile, workers' earnings increased by only 3 percent. You can see the hole people find themselves in.

This is the fifth year in a row premiums outpaced earnings. We all know that one of the reasons health care costs have escalated so fast is the spiraling price of prescription drugs. I have talked frequently about this. I speak about it and focus on it because it is such a driver for the costs of health care and health insurance.

What has Congress done to fix this problem? Unfortunately, absolutely nothing. In fact, the new Medicare law failed to do anything to lower prescription drug prices. At the same time approximately 3 million retirees will actually lose their prescription drug coverage under this new law. This bill actually takes us backward instead of forward.

The only major health care coverage initiative this administration has proposed is actually for the Iraqi people. Our country has made a commitment to moving forward with universal health coverage for all Iraqi citizens. We have provided $950 million to build hospitals and clinics in Iraq.

Please do not misunderstand what I am saying. I certainly want to be supportive of efforts to provide health care in Iraq.

What about us? What about Americans? I also want to help American families who are working hard every day, playing by the rules in this great country, and struggling to pay their bills and care for their families. I think we can help both the people of Iraq and Americans at the same time. It is our moral obligation, I believe, to make sure we are helping American families as well as others.

Mr. President, working families deserve access to affordable care for themselves and for their families. It is going to take leadership to accomplish this. The administration has had almost 4 years to take action, and it has not.

I believe it is time for bold change. I believe that when we are looking at the price of prescription drugs, we need to take out that provision in the new Medicare law that says Medicare cannot negotiate for group discounts. That is pretty basic. We know that one of the main ways you are able to lower prescription drug prices, or the price of any product, is to be able to get a group discount. Everybody knows that. Yet, in this new Medicare law, Medicare is specifically prohibited from doing that. Who benefits from that? Certainly not the taxpayers, certainly not American seniors or the disabled, and American families certainly don't benefit from that. The prescription drug industry benefits from that. What we have seen under the new Medicare law, rather than providing lower prices for people, we have 40 million seniors who are being locked into paying top dollar, and that makes absolutely no sense.

We can do something about that. We can make changes in the Medicare law so it works for people. We can also lower prices immediately by simply allowing the local pharmacists at the local drugstores in America to be able to do business with pharmacists in Canada or other countries, where they can provide FDA-approved drugs and processes and bring the prescription drugs-actually made in America-back to America so we can get the same deal everybody else gets around the world.

We have a wonderful, bipartisan bill that has been put together. I am hopeful that we will bring it to the Senate floor as soon as possible and that we are able to pass what is called reimportation of prescription drugs and lower prices. I am very hopeful and I am proud to be a cosponsor of Senator Daschle's effort and vision to say that, by 2006, we are going to make a commitment that every American has access at least to the same level of health care that we receive. This is one of the few instances where employees-elected officials-have better health care and benefits than the employers. It is time to turn that around. It is time to make a commitment.

Medicare, after it was passed, was put together in 1 year. We have great American ingenuity. If we are bold and have a vision and have a right priority, we can make sure that a year from now we are talking about the implementation of health insurance for everyone that is affordable and available to every single American.

I yield the floor.

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