Barbara Mikulski

Prescription Drug Coverage for Seniors - June 10, 2003

Barbara Mikulski
June 10, 2003— U.S. Senate, Washington, DC
Congressional floor speech
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Seniors are facing a crisis, and it is caused by the high cost of prescription drugs. For so many years Congress has talked about prescription drugs and Medicare. Well, let me tell you what seniors say: talk, talk, talk. They're fed up with our talk, and they want us to take action. They tell me you can't talk yourself out of high cholesterol. You need Liptor. You can't talk your way out of diabetes. You need insulin. The problem with the Senate, they say, is when all gets said and done, more gets said than gets done. We need to listen to the seniors and we need to act.

I've been in communities all over Maryland from diners to boardrooms. If you go where I've been, you'll hear seniors who are desperate and in need of prescription drugs. You'll hear families in diners who want to help their parents. You'll hear employers in boardrooms who really want to help their retirees but are wondering if they can afford to continue to do so. Here's what they tell me: Congress must do something about the prescription drug benefit, and they want us to do it now, to help our seniors, our families, businesses, and our economy.

There are several different plans floating around. And a lot of them have wonderful, new language. Medicare choice, Medicare advantage, et cetera. I'm not sure what will happen, but what I know is we must have a meaningful prescription drug benefit. Not just slogans and sound bites. Not just something out of the Heritage Foundation. Not something out of a think tank. But something that enables seniors to be able to afford the prescription drugs that they need.

I have five principles for a prescription drug benefit. These principles are the yardstick by which I'm going to measure any proposal.

The cornerstone of any prescription drug benefit must be in Medicare. I am absolutely opposed to the privatization of Medicare either overtly or covertly. Let me repeat. I'm absolutely opposed to the privatization of Medicare. Any prescription drug benefit that has a private insurance component to it must be in addition to the Medicare benefit, not in lieu of a Medicare benefit. It must keep a traditional Medicare component to it. Any private insurance program must be an option, and it must not be mandatory.

That goes to my second principle: voluntary. No one should be coerced or forced into a private program or forced to give up coverage if they already have it.

It must be affordable. Benefits must be affordable to business. That means affordable to seniors. It must have a definite premium and a reasonable co-payment.

It must be accessible, available to all seniors regardless of where they live.

It must be meaningful and genuine. It must cover what the doctors say they need, not what insurance executive gatekeepers say they're willing to give them.

Now, let's talk about the meaningful benefit. Congress cannot leave this up to the insurance companies. We've been done that road in Maryland and it was a rocky road, not only filled with potholes but with land mines. We had something called Medicare+choice that turned out to be nothing more than a racket for seniors to be gouged and abandoned in my own state. I'm not going to support any more rackets or any more gimmicks under the illusion of being able to help our seniors.

Insurance companies came in and seniors ended up with no choice and no coverage. The companies came in, they took the money from our seniors, then they said 'Oh, it's too expensive to do this' and they left town. They left over 100,000 Maryland seniors without coverage. We're not going to go there again. So I don't trust the insurance companies to be there for the seniors. Getting rid of Medicare by forcing them into this is not going to be the way we go.

Medicare is the answer. Medicare is not the problem. So as we look at this, we know that Medicare has served the nation well. Now we know it's time to expand it to a prescription drug benefit. We've covered hospitalization. We've covered doctors' visits. And yet because of the advances in medical science in this country, prescription drugs and medical devices save lives, help manage chronic conditions like high blood pressure, and help manage chronic conditions like diabetes. This is what we need to be focusing on.

Let's focus on the American people for a change and not the so-called hollow opportunities of structural reform. Middle-class families don't know how they're going to take care of their children and their elderly parents. American businesses are wondering about things like legacy costs and small businesses are wondering how they can afford health insurance at all.

We've got to get real, and the first place we can get real is to have a real prescription drug benefit. The nation cannot afford to do nothing. Prescription drugs are lifelines to millions of Americans. They enable seniors to prevent and manage disease. Without access to medication, seniors are going to end up with trips to the hospital, longer hospital stays, and more visits to emergency rooms.

So let's help our seniors, let's help our families, let's help our businesses and show them when we stand up for America, we stand up for what America stands for, which is a safety net for our seniors and really helping our families be able to help themselves. I yield the floor now but if they come in with some more gimmicks, I will not yield the floor in this debate.