Senator Debbie Stabenow

With a debate raging in the Senate over proposals for national prescription drug coverage, Democratic Senator from Michigan Debbie Stabenow took time in between votes to chat with about the problems she hopes new legislation will address and some of her own contributions to that legislation. Senator Stabenow took questions over the phone from Capitol Hill. Chat producer Will Femia moderates.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Welcome Senator

Senator Stabenow: It’s good to be with you.

An amendment of mine is going to be voted on shortly, we’re not sure when, but when that happens I’m going to have to leave and go to the floor.

MSNBC-Will Femia: I understand, no problem. What is the amendment?

Senator Stabenow: It’s one of the prescription drug amendments. It would make it clear that states right now that are providing discount programs through using their Medicade discount that they have… several states, like Maine are saying to the drug companies, if you want to do business with us through Medicade, we want you to provide the same discounted price for uninsured that aren’t on Medicade, and the drug companies are suing states. So this would make it clear that states have the legal right to do that.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Well good luck with that. Let’s jump right to the meat of the matter...

Question from Roxiee2: Will there ever be prescription drug coverage, or is that just a ruse promice to get elected

MSNBC-Will Femia: The first part of that question is whether there’s any room for compromise such that something, anything will come out of this.

Question from Bob Jones: Senator Stabenow, You have been in Washington for quite a long time. First as Representative and now as Senator. With your experience, do you believe that it is better suited to take the drug companies head on with law suits and government regulations or would it be more appropriate to work with pharmaceutical companies to insure the cheapest price?

Senator Stabenow: Those are very good questions. Let first me start by saying that I have now, over five and a half years in the Congress, attempted to work with the pharmaceutical industry and have come to the conclusion that the reason they fight everything, and I literally mean everything that we try to do to bring more competition into price setting or to lower prices or provide Medicare coverage, is because they just make so much money off the current system.

They make money by fighting us. For example, the companies are, I believe, gaming the patent system and using lawsuits and efforts to buy up the competition and various mechanisms to stop companies from bringing forth lower priced prescriptions once a 20 year patent runs out.

We’ve tried to work with them to close loopholes in that system, but they make so much money by having those loopholes that they have no incentive.

For example, I believe it was Bristol Myer who fought a generic brand of something that is the generic equivalent of Boost Bars that the company sued to block going to market. The court ruled against Bristol Myer after 4 months, but during that 4 months, they made $200 million by excluding that drug from the market for just 4 monhts.

So they have such a financial stake now in keeping the system the way it is. And the system is one where they have a huge amount of taxpayer subsidies. We pay as taxpayers, for basic research, this year we’ll pay $23.5 billion to the NIH for basic research that the companies use.

Which I support, but they use that research that we fund, the do their own R&D and get tax deductions and credits for that, and then we give them a 20 year patent so they’re protected from competition for up to 20 years so they can recover their costs.

So at the end of that, unfortunately, what we as Americans get are the highest prices in the world. I mention that as a back drop because I don’t believe it’s possible to get real agreement from the companies anymore. I think it’s an issue of corporate responsibility and integrity and I wish we could, but…

We are left in a situation now where we really are in a position to get to the point of “will we see real coverage?” We are fighting the drug lobby every day.

MSNBC-Will Femia: The second part of that first question, and I understand this to be one of the chief accusations from Republicans, is whether Democrats are being deliberately uncooperative in the present process so they can still have the issue to run on in coming elections.

Question from TA: Why hasn’t Congress done anything about this problem about higher prescription drug costs to Americans when they knew about this for a long time—-why now—-is because it is an election year for many Congressmen/women?

Senator Stabenow: I understand people’s frustration. It’s very easy to be cynical about this issue. I’ve been working on this issue since 1996 when I was first elected to the House. It is used every year. Every election people talk about this.

It’s past talking, it’s time to get something done. There are many sincere, well meaning people here that want to get something done. But we are blocked at every turn by the drug company lobby, which is the strongest lobby in the country. There are six drug company lobbyists for every one member of the Senate.

I say that not because I believe this is futile. I believe we can lower prices, put more competition in the marketplace, get real Medicare reform, but I believe it’s going to take the engagement of the American people in this issue, holding our feet to the fire, holding us accountable.

In the last presidential election, our current president as well as his opponent talked bout this issue, both promising action. I think the President needs to be held accountable. We in Congress need to be held accountable.

In order to create a climate for change to happen, I’ve set up in my own home state through my web site, a prescription drug people’s lobby. And we’ve also set up an online petition drive at where people can sign a petition asking us to act on both real Medicare prescription drug benefit and efforts to lower prices.

MSNBC-Will Femia: The Senator’s web site is at

Senator Stabenow: People can also go through that site and sign letters to their members of Congress and they can also share their stories with us. That’s important because I go to the floor of the Senate every day and talk about real people who are struggling to pay for their prescriptions or small businesses who are struggling to pay for health care for their employees. And that makes a difference.

So I believe, and I’ve seen this time and time again, that when people get involved we can get past the roadblocks of the special interests and get something done. I’m working very hard to make that happen.

Question from frederique: Hi Senator, Can you please put out a chart/spreadsheet that the public can see with all three plans on it? I watch C-Span alot and even I am confused to the dem’s plan vs. the tripartisan plan. I think the republicans plan stinks. Anyone who would trust the insurance industry (after all the HMO problems) has got to be kidding. Something easy so we can cut it out for our elders.

Question from Arbie: Hey Will, how is this different from the last guy’s plan?

MSNBC-Will Femia: I think the “last guy” he means is Congressman Sherrod Brown.

Senator Stabenow: That’s a very good suggestion to have a side by side comparison. I would agree with your assessment of House Republican plan. The tri-partisan plan is just about the same, a little bit different. Today there was a report put out and I’ll put that on my website, comparing state by state what the 3 plans would affect citizens in each state. I think that’s an excellent idea, we’ll try to get that up soon as possible.

I would also suggest a consumer group called Families USA that is deeply involved in this and has information on their website. A group called Public Citizen and also through the Health & Education Committee that Senator Kennedy chairs, they’ve been putting out a lot of information that’s probably on their site. I haven’t checked, but if you check with the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, their website has a lot of information comparing the plans. And also Senator Kennedy’s personal site.

Question from Chipstheone: Do you feel the prescription benefit should be extended equally to all Medicare recipients? Or should there be a means test of some sort to insure those in need get help but does not use tax payers’ money to help those who do not need the assistance?

Question from JJ: Will the new prescription program be required. I have an excellent program

that I plan to stay with so will this just be a new tax to me?

Senator Stabenow: What’s most important to know is that all of the plans that are being proposed are voluntary. There’s a Part A and a part B under Medicare now. This would be a part C or D that would be purely optional. If someone has their own insurance they could choose not to participate in this program.

Right now all of us pay into Medicare and Social Security, so everyone pays into the system. There is great concern from AARP and all of the senior organizations and health care consumer groups that we not turn this into a low income program because everyone pays into the system at all levels, and there’s a desire to keep it a universal program like Medicare is. Medicare itself is not a low income program, it’s available for anyone once the reach the age of 65 or they’re diabled.

The strength of the program is that we have so many people playing into the system and keeping it as viable as possible. So I would not support just focusing on low income citizens. For very low income citizens we have Medicaid. It’s really the lower-middle class and middle class right now that don’t have insurance, who find themselves in the most difficultly -those that don’t qualify for Medicaid but don’t have their own insurance plan.

Question from Bobby: What happened to the idea of opening the U.S. to Canadian drug companies? Wouldn’t that cool the U.S. market and pass easily since President Bush is a free trade advocate?

Question from TA: Senator, why do Americans have to pay more for prescription drugs manufacuted in this country than do Canadians and Mexicans?

Senator Stabenow: This is a very important point. The term has been called re-importation of American drugs into the country. This is an issue we debated yesterday as a matter of fact, and I’m a cosponsor of legislature that we passed yesterday that I hope will make a difference if President Bush is willing to administer it.

Right now Americans pay the highest prices in the world for American made drugs (most drugs are developed in the United States) but every other country uses a system where their government negotiates with the drug companies for substantial discounts. Canada does this through their health system, Europe, basically every other country negotiates a group rate for their people. We are the only ones that don’t.

The federal government does negotiate for the veterans through the VA hospital, but American citizens are left, particularly if they don’t have insurance, to pay retail. The drug companies in the late ’80s were successful in getting a law passed to protect them from competition by closing the border to Canada and other countries. There is no good reason for that other than just to protect them from competition, so a number of us have been fighting to open the border.

We do have free trade with Canada every day, billions of dollars crossing the border, and there’s no excuse for not having the border open for prescription drugs. In fact, we have American companies that have factories in Canada that do bring prescription drugs across the border, and right now it’s legal for them to bring their own drugs across the border but not for a registered pharmacist to have a business relationship with a wholesalers in Canada and bring back these low priced drugs for their customers at the neighborhood drug story.

And I should say that on average you can lower your prices by 50% by buying your drugs in Canada.

I’ve taken bus trips to Canada with seniors and we have demonstrated that over and over again. In some cases the price difference is even more startling. There’s a drug called Tamoxifin, a breast cancer treatment drug, that in Michigan is $136 a month in Michigan and in Canada we purchased it for $15. So it’s outrageous what’s happening.

Yesterday we passed an amendment that opens the border to Canada. That’s the good news. The bad news is that those supporting the drug company perspective were successful in amending that to require that the Secretary of Health and Human Services do certain certifications before the border would be opened. Today in the paper, the Bush administration has indicated the Secretary will not do that.

I’m hopeful that if people get involved in this issue, write to the President urging him to administer this law that we just passed, we need to put a great deal of pressure now on e-mailing to the White House, they need to be flooded with email, letters and phone calls saying that people want this administered and they want the border to be opened. If we can get this bill administered as we passed it yesterday, we can drop prices 50% immediately.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Do you have time for another?

Senator Stabenow: I apologize, I’m getting the “hi” sign, I’ve got to go to the floor to deal with our state’s bill. I look forward to talking to you again.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Thanks Senator for fitting us in today.

Senator Stabenow: Thank you.