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Byron L. Dorgan, D-ND
Mr. DORGAN. Mr. President, this issue of health care and health care reform has been an issue that has caused a great deal of advertising and claims on television from both sides, back and forth. A substantial amount of the advertising we have seen has been totally and completely without foundation--completely inaccurate. But, nonetheless, political dialogue in this country allows one to say whatever one wishes, so the very aggressive discussion about this issue of health care has taken on interesting
tones--claims by some that Congress is working to undermine the Medicare Program.
The fact is, those of us on this side of the aisle are the ones who created the Medicare Program, at a time when most senior citizens had no health insurance at all. There were no insurance companies in this country tracking down senior citizens and saying: Do you mind if we sell you a policy for health care? At a time when people's lives were going to need an increasing claim on health care benefits, were insurance companies tracking them down and saying: Can I do business with you? Of course
they weren't. Over half the American people had no access to health insurance. Folks reaching the end of their lives, retired, would lay their head down on their pillow at night and wonder if tomorrow would be [Page: S12545]
the day they would get sick and have no health insurance coverage; and
wonder if they would get sick, who would treat them or how they would find the money to provide for themselves. So the fact is, this Congress created something called Medicare at a time when it was decided that maybe we should put together a program to give senior citizens an opportunity to be covered with health care.
It was decried as socialism--unbelievable--when we tried to put together this government program to provide Medicare for senior citizens. Some old guy in a little town in North Dakota one night, at a town meeting, got up, and he was so angry with the government. He shook his hand as he spoke. He was a thin, older guy, and his neck was coursing out and bulging so that I thought he was going to have a heart attack right there, shouting about the government. At the end of the meeting, an elderly
woman took me aside and said: You know what, I hope you are not upset with Ernie because he's been pretty emotional about a lot of things. He just had open heart surgery and he gets kind of emotional about things.
So I saw the gentleman as he was leaving, and I sidled up to him and I said: I understand you just had open heart surgery, and he said: Yeah. So I asked him if his surgery was covered by Medicare, and he said it was. I said: Well, there is at least one government program that works. He said: Medicare ``ain't'' government. It just ``ain't'' government.
Well, of course, it is government. The reason he had health insurance coverage was because we--that is we the government, the Congress, the American people--decided we weren't going to let people come to the end of their years and not have health insurance coverage.
Some might say: Well, yes, you put together Social Security and Medicare and now you have trouble financing it. That is true. That is true. We have trouble financing it because of success. We can handle success. Our country can handle success. People are living longer and better lives these days--longer and better lives--and they claim more health care during those extra 5, 10 or 20 years they are living.
I have often told my colleagues that I have an 89-year-old uncle who runs in the Senior Olympics. He runs the 50 meter, the 100 meter, and the 200 meter. He runs the 100 meter in under 19 seconds at age 89. Would that have happened 30 years ago? Not likely. But people are living longer and healthier lives and it causes some strain on Social Security and Medicare, but we can deal with success. Surely, we can deal with success.
Now we are talking about a system of health care that doesn't work for everybody or it doesn't work very well for many people and it works very well for some others. But should we do nothing or should we decide to try to tackle this question?
I walked into a restaurant about 2 weeks ago, and I saw what several of my colleagues have seen: advertisements on the wall. This particular restaurant, as you walk through the door, has a plate glass window up to the ceiling, and it had a couple of advertisements on it. Both of them were advertisements for people who needed to raise money to try to pay for their health care costs--spaghetti dinners, bake sales, various things to ask people to come and chip in some money for their health care
Let me read a few of them. I will not read the name, but this one is a benefit for Chris's family: A spaghetti feed and silent auction is going to be held from 5 to 7:30 p.m. to benefit Chris. He is a sheriff's deputy who was shot in the head and the abdomen while on duty and is still recovering at a rehabilitation hospital outside of Denver, CO. They will have a spaghetti feed and silent auction to try to raise the funds to benefit that family for their needs.
Here is a spaghetti supper, silent auction, bake sale, free-will offering for supper or donations to be made to the Duane fund at the Community National Bank. He has stomach cancer that has spread to other areas and is undergoing various treatments and needs help with medical and living expenses.
This is what you see on the side of the wall in cafes, posted to a bulletin board downtown: A burger supper and free-will offering to be held for Amy. In July, Amy was diagnosed with uterine cancer, which has metastasized to the lymph nodes. She has had surgery and is now undergoing chemotherapy radiation and needs to raise funds for health care costs.
Here is a pancake breakfast to be held for Sean in the school cafeteria. Scrambled eggs, pancakes, and sausage will be served, and there will be a free-will offering. Sean's infant daughter was born with a heart defect and needs corrective surgery and a lengthy stay in the hospital. The staff is hosting the event to defray the expenses so they can provide the funds to try to afford this very expensive medical treatment.
Joyce is the mother of Brandy. Brand is a 16-year-old who was involved in a car accident weeks after her parents decided to give up their health care coverage so they could afford mortgage payments. The family had a meatball and mashed potato dinner benefit last month to help pay for Brandy's health care needs.
I have a long list. The list goes on, and one wonders whether we should be oblivious to that, that we walk into the business places in the downtowns and the Main Streets of our communities and see that there are many people who have to have a spaghetti supper or burger feed to see if they can raise enough money just to get to the hospital, just for transportation, let alone the surgery, let alone the medical treatment.
I think it is the worst, not the best of our political system that when we debate these things, there is so much misinformation, so much bad information that is alleged about legislation to try to deal with health care.
It is interesting to me, I do not know of an attempt of a government takeover of the health care system. I have heard it 1,000 times on this floor. I am not familiar with any legislation that has been discussed that represents a government takeover of health care. I am just not familiar with it. Maybe it exists in some cubbyhole someplace, but I have not seen it. But I know why the allegation comes to the floor every day--because it works. Scare the devil out of people. Somebody is trying to
have a complete government takeover of the health care system. I wouldn't support a government takeover of the health care system. I wouldn't support it. I do support Medicare. By the way, that is a government-created system to make sure all citizens have access to health care because the private industry is not going to get there. They didn't prior to Medicare, and they wouldn't now if we didn't have Medicare.
The very people who come and talk about government health care, it is interesting they do not come to the floor of the Senate offering an amendment that would abolish Medicare. I don't understand--if, in fact, they really do not like this at all, they should be offering an amendment that abolishes the Medicare Program, saying it is just not worthy, to have a system in which the government tries to guarantee health care for America's seniors. The reason I think they do not is they agree with Medicare.
They believe Medicare should exist, and as a result, they support a form of government health care, at least for senior citizens.
What I want to do briefly--I will talk more about that later. I am going to offer an amendment. I expect it will be tomorrow night or Tuesday.
I see Senator Grassley is on the floor. He has been a cosponsor of this legislation, Senator Snowe, Senator McCain and others--many on my side--Senator Stabenow. There are a lot of folks who have worked on this, the issue of prescription drug importation. I want to make a couple of comments about that. I have not been on the floor speaking about the health care much until now, and I will be offering this amendment; I guess it will either be tomorrow evening
or I expect it to be on Tuesday. But I want to make a couple of comments about it because I think it is very important.
I don't think you can leave the issue of health care, having tried to do things about the escalating costs--some people talk about bending the cost curve, whatever that means. All I know is, putting the brakes on increasing costs at the time they are skyrocketing is important for businesses, for families, for individuals. The question is, What about prescription drugs? How can we possibly leave that subject behind? [Page: S12546]
There are a whole lot of people in this country who are taking prescription drugs to manage their diseases and keep them out of an acute-care bed in a hospital. Cholesterol-lowering medicine, blood pressure-lowering medicine--a whole lot of people take both every day of their lives and do so to manage health care problems. Yet what they see with brand-name prescription drugs is a dramatic increase in prices. I want to just give some examples.
This year alone, the average price of brand-name prescription drugs has gone up 9.2 percent, well over quadruple the rate of inflation. Justification for that? I see none. Should we do something about it? Should we try to put the brakes on some of this? I think we should. Let's look at some examples. Enbrel, for arthritis, up 12 percent in 2009; Nexium, for ulcers, up 7 percent in 2009; Lipitor, up 5 percent; Singulair, for asthma, up 12 percent; Plavix, up 8 percent; Boniva, for osteoporosis,
up 18 percent this year.
All of us understand--you watch television in the morning and brush your teeth, you have a television set there someplace, and they are saying to you: Do you know what you should be doing? You should be going to talk to your doctor. You should talk to your doctor and see whether the purple pill is right for you.
I don't know what the purple pill is, but the television commercial is pretty seductive. You almost feel like: I ought to find a doctor someplace; maybe I am missing something; maybe the purple pill is right for me.
The list go goes on and on. Flomax, Lipitor--you name it, they are advertising it relentlessly. Go ask your doctor whether these pills are right for you.
The problem is, the American people, with respect to the price of prescription drugs, are charged the highest prices in the world. Not even close--brand-name prescription drugs cost much more here than anywhere else in the world.
I have in my desk something I would like, by consent, to show. These are two bottles of Lipitor. This is, by the way, the most popular cholesterol-lowering drug in America. These bottles, as you can see, are the same shape. These pills are made in the same place. They are made in Ireland and then shipped around the world. This bottle was shipped to the United States. This bottle, with 20-milligram tablets of Lipitor, was shipped to the United States. You get to buy them as a U.S. consumer for
$4.48 per tablet. This bottle--one is red, one is blue, same size, same pills, same company--this bottle went to Canada, same 20-milligram tablets. No, it was not $4.48, which the American consumer paid, it was $1.83. It does not matter whether it is
Canada, Italy, Spain, Germany, France--I would cite exactly the same numbers in terms of the American people being told they should be paying double, triple, in some cases quadruple what other people are paying for exactly the same prescription drug.
On this chart, this represents inflation--the yellow line. This represents the increased prices for prescription drugs--the red line--which I think demonstrates clearly why something ought to be done.
A group of us have put together a piece of legislation that is simple, and, in my judgment, very effective in addressing this problem that the American people are charged the highest prices in the world for brand-name prescription drugs.
An example of that, I sat on a straw bale out on a farm once about a year or so ago with some people at a town meeting. One of the old guys out there--he was about 80 years old--he said: My wife and I have driven to Canada every 3 months so she could buy Tamoxifen to treat her breast cancer.
I said: Why did you do that?
He said: Because we can't afford to buy Tamoxifen in the United States. I bought it for one-fifth of the price in Canada of what it would cost us. My wife has been fighting breast cancer--in her late seventies now--for 3 years, and the only way we could afford the drug was to drive into Canada.
Most people cannot drive into Canada. There is an informal opportunity for people to bring back a 3-month supply on their person if they go to Canada. Most Americans cannot possibly do that. But the same drug is sold all over the world by the major drugmakers, and the difference is they charge the highest prices to the American people.
The question is this: Why shouldn't the American people have some freedom--the freedom to shop for that same FDA-approved drug wherever it is sold if it is sold at a fraction of the price? The answer is, they should have that freedom. Our legislation gives them that freedom.
I assume there will be people coming here and saying: If you pass this legislation, that allows the American people to access, through pharmacists or through registered wholesalers, these identical FDA-approved drugs for a fraction of the price. If you do that somehow, we are worried we will have an unsafe drug supply, we are worried
about counterfeit drugs.
In this legislation I put together with my colleagues, Senator Snowe, Senator Stabenow, and Senator Grassley--a wide range, bipartisan group of Senators--that is pretty unusual. This is a bipartisan amendment, by the way. But in our legislation, we have the significant changes that are necessary to ensure safe drug supply, not just those you would ship in but those you buy here. We talk in our legislation about batch lots and pedigree and a whole series of things. So
you track every drug right back through the chain of custody, right to its manufacturer, and that is something we do not do today.
When we offer this, the question is, Do we have the votes to get this passed? We have tried for a long time. We have been rebuffed here and there for various reasons.
There is a supposed ``deal'' that has been struck with the pharmaceutical industry, for $80 billion. I think the pharmaceutical industry has something like $220 billion a year in revenues, so that is $2.2 trillion over 10 years. A very small fraction of that $220 billion was agreed to by the White House, I guess, and somebody here in Congress.
One of my colleagues who served here years ago said, ``I am not for any deal I am not a part of.'' Most Members of the Senate were not part of any deal. So my expectation is, the time and place and reason to offer this is right now. We can't do health care and leave behind this question of the cost, the price of prescription drugs.
I think the drug industry is a fine industry. I want them to succeed. I want them to be profitable. I want them to be successful. I want them to produce the new miracle lifesaving drugs, and by the way, much of that comes from public investments we make in the National Institutes of Health. But I just want them to change their pricing strategy. Why should the American people be paying the highest prices in the world?
Europe has had a strategy--it is called parallel trading--that they have had in place over 20 years. If you are in England and want to buy a drug from France, no problem. If you are in Spain and want to buy a drug from Italy, no problem. They have done it for 20 years successfully. Somehow, people are suggesting that we can't do what the Europeans do? That is nonsense.
We are going to offer this legislation: myself, Senator McCain, I mentioned Senator Stabenow, Senator Grassley--there are so many Members of the Democratic and Republican side on this. We will offer this legislation, and I hope we will have the 60 votes necessary to pass it. I hope finally, at last--at long, long last--we will have enough people standing on the floor of Senate who will say: You know what, I am on the side of the American people here. I am not interested
in having the American people pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. How about some fair pricing for a change, fair pricing for the American people? And how about some freedom, freedom for the American people to access those identical drugs where they are sold at a fraction of the price? Why restrict
the freedom of the American people? Everybody talks about this being a global economy. Well, that is so when it benefits everybody else, but what about a global economy that benefits the consumer when they want to access an FDA-approved drug when it is sold elsewhere for a half, quarter, or eighth of the price?
Let's give people a little freedom. I hear people talk about freedom on the floor of the Senate. This will be a bill in which we decide whether we want to [Page: S12547]
give the American people the freedom to access those low-cost prescription drugs.
I am going to have a lot to talk about when we offer this amendment.
Just this year, again, just this year the price of prescription drugs has increased 9.2 percent.
I showed the chart. There is no reason that brand-named prescription drugs should be on a stepladder like that. What about the people who struggle, trying to figure out how to buy those drugs? Does anybody care about them?
They say the deal that was made with the pharmaceutical industry affects what is called the doughnut hole, and 50 percent of the doughnut hole is being filled if they buy brand-named--I don't care about that. That is a recipe for a stew I was not part of making. What I do care about is a whole lot of folks going to the grocery store where the pharmacy is in the back of the store and they are trying to figure out, what do these drugs cost me this time when I fill them so I know how much money
I have left to buy food. Over and over in this country, people are making those choices. There is no excuse for a 9-percent increase in these brand-name prescription drugs this year, in anticipation of health care reform.
The fact is, health care reform ought to contain the kinds of things that begin to put brakes on this.
I am not saying you put the brakes on it by imposing government pricing. I am saying you put the brakes on it by giving the American people the freedom to access those drugs where they are sold at a fraction of the price they are sold here. And you give the American people that freedom, I guarantee you, they will shop where they get the best price on identical drugs, FDA approved. It will force the pharmaceutical industry to reprice drugs in the United States.
A couple quick points in conclusion. President Barack Obama was a cosponsor of this legislation last year when he was a Senator. The Chief of Staff at the White House, Rahm Emanuel, was one of the leaders in the House on this legislation last year when he served in the House. It tells you a little something about the breadth of support that exists or existed for this. Somebody told me at the door as I came in: We are not sure the White House is supporting this. I fully expect the White House
to support an amendment they supported last year in the Senate.
There are big issues and small issues. This issue is an important issue. A lot of us have worked for a long time to get it right. We have been thwarted by a very powerful industry that has a lot of friends in this town. I am hoping the consumers have a lot of friends as well. A lot of people are out there struggling to try to figure out how to afford the prescription drugs they need to take. A whole lot of folks are deciding, I guess what I will do is get the prescription drugs the doctor says
I should have, and I will cut them in half and see if I can make that work somehow. The next time they show up at the counter, it is 9 percent more.
I say knock off a little of that advertising. There are different reports, but there are some reports that say they spend more money on marketing promotion and advertising than they do on research. How about knocking off a little of that advertising if that is causing some of the relentless price increases.
I want to begin the discussion because we will have a full discussion on this when it comes to the floor. It will be either tomorrow afternoon or Tuesday morning. Senator McCain will be joining me on the floor and many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to see if we can't finally lift this piece of legislation and get it over the finish line. It is important for the American people.
I yield the floor.