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Burlington Free Press - Putting Patients Over Special Interests

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Putting Patients Over Special Interests

By Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)

When you are married to a registered nurse, you come to understand that much of what we value about the miracles of modern medicine springs from the medical profession's clear focus on one simple question: What is best for the patient?

That's also the first question that should be asked about government policies on health care, but unfortunately for the American people, it's often one of the last questions asked by the Bush Administration and Republican leaders in Congress. When it comes to issues like the cost of prescription drugs, their impulse instead has been to cater to their powerful friends in the pharmaceutical industry.

When Marcelle and I visit hospitals across Vermont we know that different communities have different healthcare needs. We have widely spaced rural areas as well as urban communities. As a life-long Vermonter I know that people needing regular dialysis in the Newport area, for instance, need a local treatment facility-not one half a day's drive away.

The fact that more than 45 million Americans do not have health insurance, including more than 65,000 Vermonters, means misery and uncertainty in the lives of millions of families, and it creates countless problems throughout our society. Solving this problem needs to be a top priority on Congress's list and on the next President's list.

Federal and state health programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, along with community health centers, provide a critical safety net, but millions still fall through the cracks. Others who are uninsured have jobs but can't afford to buy insurance through their employers, and many looking for coverage in the individual insurance market are faced with plans that are unaffordable and offer only limited coverage.

We should build on the pillars of our current system to ensure universal access to quality, affordable health care coverage. But in order to successfully do that we also must bring rising costs under control.

The truth is that this Republican-controlled Congress and this Administration blocked using Medicare's market power to negotiate lower prices for the medicines the program will be buying under the new drug benefit and blocked allowing Americans access to safe, lower-priced medicines from Canada. And according to the Bush Administration's own estimates, the new Medicare law will provide HMOs and other private plans an extra $46 billion over ten years-even though these plans are already paid more than it would cost to treat the same people under the traditional Medicare program. To make matters worse, the Administration illegally withheld information from Congress about the true cost of the Medicare bill during its consideration. These irresponsible policies are in large part why I voted against the Bush Medicare bill. We can do better.

We need to do the prescription drug plan the right way this time. If you ask what is best for the patients-instead of for special interests like the drug companies-we can change the prescription drug plan to use Medicare's bargaining clout in the marketplace, and open the door to drug reimportation from Canada, to bring down the cost of prescription drugs.

We also must work to promote healthier lifestyles and early screening, which decrease our personal health care costs, as well as those of the system as a whole.

If Congress and the President are guided by what is best for the American people, instead of for the special interests, we will make health policy choices worthy of the American people.

[This column appeared in the Burlington Free Press on September 29, 2004]

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