News Releases

Murray Continues to Push for Prescription Drug Coverage Through Medicare

Jul 22 2002

Remarks Delivered on the Senate Floor

Mr. President, I rise today in support of a Medicare prescription drug benefit. I want to share part of letter I received from an 84-year-old gentleman in my home State of Washington. He writes:

"My annual income is limited to Social Security and a small amount of interest generated from the proceeds of the sale of my home. That doesn't leave much for anything but the basics. The highest of my monthly bills is for prescription drugs, the cost of which have skyrocketed for the past few years. Because Medicare provides nothing toward the exorbitant costs of these drugs, which are mostly for my heart, I pay upwards of $250 a month out of pocket. If Congress does nothing else this coming session, please let it be relief from the expense of the drugs I have to take to survive."

Mr. President, that is why I rise today in support of a prescription drug benefit. This is an issue Congress has talked about for years. It's a major challenge for seniors and the disabled every time they have to fill a prescription. And everyone agrees we need to do something about. We have a bill that will address this problem in a responsible way, and I'm on the floor today to help move it forward. I'm very proud to be a co-sponsor of the Graham-Miller-Kennedy bill, the Medicare Outpatient Prescription Drug Act of 2002.

This is not a new issue for me or for the people of my home State of Washington. Over the years, I've held many roundtable discussions in my home state where I've listened to doctors, seniors, the disabled, along with industry leaders and health care providers.

Like many people in my state, I'm frustrated that it's taken us this long to finally reach this point in this critical debate. Unfortunately, the attacks of September 11th and the problems in our economy have delayed this critical discussion until now.

During my time in the Senate, I've been proud to work on prescription drug coverage from helping to draft the MEND Act in the 106th Congress, to working on the Budget Committee over the past three years to provide funding for prescription drugs. This Congress, I've been proud to work with my Democratic colleagues to help ensure the Graham-Miller-Kennedy bill meets our priorities of providing an affordable, voluntary, comprehensive, reliable benefit that's part of Medicare.

Health care has changed dramatically since Medicare was created, and it's time that we update the Medicare program to meet today's needs. Decades ago, prescription drugs weren't a big issue. Back then, drugs played a much smaller role in health care. Today however, prescription drugs are a key part of health care helping to prevent disease, and helping patients live longer.

As a result of these changes in health care, seniors now rely on prescription drugs more than ever. The average Medicare beneficiary fills 19 - 24 prescriptions each year. Clearly, prescription drugs are more effective -- and coverage is more needed -- than ever before.

Unfortunately, it's getting more expensive and more difficult for seniors to get the medicine they need. Some seniors have drug coverage through their employers, but that number is shrinking. As costs rise, employers are cutting back on coverage. In 1994, 40 percent of firms offered health benefits to their retirees. But by 2001, only 23 percent offered health benefits to their retirees. Of those on Medicare, 38 percent have no drug coverage throughout the year. And even those seniors who are lucky enough to have coverage have seen increased premiums, deductibles, co-pays and greater restrictions. For those on Medicare, out-of-pocket payments for prescriptions -- in just a two-year period from 2000-2002 -- have grown from an average of $813 to more than $1,000. The lack of coverage and the growing costs are impacting health care today. Right now, an estimated 10 - 13 million seniors don't have any prescription drug coverage.

To meet this need, it's become critical that we update the program that seniors and the disabled rely on for their medical care. Mr. President, updating Medicare is something we need to do very carefully. Back in 1997 when I first joined the Senate's HELP Committee, we faced the challenge of reforming and revitalizing the Food and Drug Administration's drug and device approval process. There were several competing demands we had to balance. On one hand, patients want new drugs and devices approved and available as soon as possible. On the other hand, the FDA has a responsibility to protect the public's health. We had to balance those two competing demands. And I'm pleased that in the end after months of debate we passed a good bill that struck the right balance. I mention that example to remind us that there are several competing demands when it comes to prescription drugs for seniors.

The first consideration is affordability. We can have the best drugs in the world, but if seniors can't afford them, they're of little use. So affordability is key. But price is not the only consideration.

A second concern is safety and effectiveness. We've worked hard over the years to make sure that our drug supply is safe. It's one of the FDA's most important responsibilities. I'm proud of the way generic drugs have lowered the cost and improved access for so many Americans. But I also recognize that if the drug isn't safe, or if it's not the medicine a patient needs, the cost savings are meaningless.

Another concern is innovation. Here in the United States, we have access to the most innovative, cutting-edge medicines. We don't want artificial limits on drug distribution that would delay innovations.

Finally, I believe that a prescription drug benefit must be a seamless part of Medicare. Just like care from a doctor or a hospital visit, prescription drugs are one of the key ways we provide health care today, and it should be treated like that under Medicare.

With all those considerations in mind, I'm proud to support the Graham-Miller-Kennedy bill. It's the only plan that strikes the right balance. It's the only plan that delivers on the promise of a real prescription drug benefit for everyone on Medicare. It provides a comprehensive, affordable, and reliable prescription drug benefit. It provides coverage for every prescription without any deductible or coverage gap. It offers predictable, affordable co-payments, and it protects seniors from catastrophic expenses.

Second, it's affordable. It has a fixed monthly premium of just $25. It covers all drug expenses after a senior has spent $4,000 in out-of-pocket expenses. And because there's no deductible, it will help seniors with their very first prescription.

I'm also proud that this bill goes to great lengths to help those with low incomes. For example, there is no premium or cost-sharing for beneficiaries with incomes below 135 percent of poverty. For those between 135 - 150 percent of poverty, there are reduced premiums. That will make a difference for the 168,000 Washington seniors who are below 150 percent of poverty.

Finally, this drug benefit is reliable. It will give seniors the security that comes from knowing that they can get the medicine they need. Seniors will know they are getting the same coverage -- for the same price -- no matter how sick they are, and no matter where they live. The Graham-Miller-Kennedy bill is comprehensive, affordable and reliable.

The other bills would leave a lot of Washington State seniors behind. Low income seniors would in fact do far worse under the House and Senate Republican bills. The Senate Republican bill has a $250 deductible. Our bill has no deductible. Under the Senate Republican bill, there's a big "benefit hole" for seniors who spend -- out of their own pocket -- between $3,451 to $5,300 on prescription drugs. In Washington state, 212,000 people will fall into that benefit hole -- paying premiums and high drug costs -- without receiving any benefits. Under the House Republican plan, that benefit hole affects even more people: 340,000 in Washington state alone. There are many other problems with the House and Senate Republican bills from the very limited stop-loss to the asset tests. And both these plans rely on private insurance companies to provide the benefit. If private insurance companies are not willing to participate, there is no coverage. Those of us in Washington state have seen the private insurance market shrink in recent years, so that doesn't give us a lot of confidence in trusting the private sector to solve the problem.

Before I close, I want to mention that we have other parts of Medicare we need to fix. Over the past few months, I've worked with a number of my colleagues to address the regional inequities in Medicare. Even though all seniors pay the same rate into the Medicare system, their access to health care depends on where they live. If they live in Washington state, they have far less access to healthcare. That's because Washington state ranks 42nd in the nation in Medicare reimbursements per beneficiary. I've been working with leaders in my state on this issue, and I'm continuing to raise the ideas and the MediFair proposal with my colleagues here in the Senate. I'm proud that the Graham-Miller-Kennedy bill does not base benefits on the same flawed formula that has created regional inequities in Medicare reimbursements. I hope we can move forward on both issues -- addressing the fairness in Medicare payments and providing prescription drugs.

Mr. President, today we have the opportunity to help the more than 700,000 people in Washington state who are enrolled in Medicare. We know that prescription drugs are more effective -- and more important for good health care -- than ever before. But seniors don't have access to them because of rising costs and shrinking coverage. The Graham-Miller-Kennedy bill will provide a prescription drug benefit that's part of Medicare and that is comprehensive, affordable and reliable. I urge my colleagues to help us pass this critical legislation.