September 18, 2003
United States Senator Mark Dayton Has a Novel Idea: Members of Congress Should Receive a Drug Prescription Plan No Better Than Our Nation's Seniors Under Medicare
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
United States Senator Mark Dayton (Democrat-Minnesota) is an effective, low-key liberal who misses his former Senate colleague, Paul Wellstone, very much. Dayton has been trying to find ways to pay tribute to Wellstone through his own progressive work in the Senate.
That's one of the reasons that he is pushing for Congress to pass legislation that would commit House and Senate members to receive a drug benefit plan that is no better than any that would be provided under a new Medicare benefits bill.
Particularly galling to Dayton is a Bush administration/drug industry proposal to have Medicare offer "drug discount cards" until the new Medicare program is phased in (which is not going to be as good as Congress's, trust us). The card is basically a drug industry tool to keep track of senior medication purchases and help them MARKET to seniors. It's a pharmaceutical industry wet dream. (Those are BuzzFlash's words, not the Senator's.)
As for any savings the supposed discount card might provide, here are what a couple of Congressional representatives had to say about it:
Stark and Brown, joined by Congressmen Henry Waxman and Mike Ross, recently announced that the GAO conducted a study that revealed the savings provided by the card would hardly make a dent in the soaring costs of prescriptions to seniors. Prilosec is the highest selling drug for seniors in the United States, for example. Seniors in Washington, D.C. who used drug cards would receive an average savings of only $2.09 on Prilosec, which is 1.7% off the monthly average cost of $125.28.
In some cases, prices are higher with the drug card than without, according to the congressmen. GAO found that one of the pharmacies in North Dakota with a senior discount program sold eight of the nine drugs at a lower price than seniors could receive with some discount cards. In California, pharmacies that participate in the Medi-Cal program are required to give seniors a discounted price. For the popular arthritis medication Celebrex and the generic blood pressure medication atenolol, average prices paid by California seniors are already lower than the prices with the drug cards.
But Congress is moving ahead with this plastic marketing card for the pharmaceutical industry, who just happen to be big Bush contributors. The New York Times reported on September 9th:
It's at this point we begin the BuzzFlash interview with United States Senator Mark Dayton.
* * *
BUZZFLASH: You began, at the Minnesota State Fair, a petition drive to request members of Congress to provide for themselves the same prescription coverage that would be provided to seniors under any Medicare plan. How did you come up with this idea?
SENATOR MARK DAYTON: It was in the spirit of my friend and former colleague, Paul Wellstone. I don’t know how the inspiration was transmitted to me, but it very much felt like something that Paul would propose. I had said during my campaign -- as the President had said during his and a majority of my colleagues, at various times, had said in their own pursuits -- that seniors ought to get benefits as good as those that members of Congress receive.
I would rather see us bring the program coverage now proposed for seniors up to our level, which is now estimated to be twice the value of what seniors are getting. But in the failure to do that, then we ought to bring our level down to theirs. Then we’ll at least understand what it is we’re consigning them to.
BUZZFLASH: On your website, there is a news release that says your proposal passed in the Senate, but that many Senators were told not to worry about it because basically it would be scuttled in the Joint Conference Committee. Is this accurate?
SEN. DAYTON: Well, those are the published reports. The Roll Call newspaper that covers the Hill reported that shortly after my amendment passed. It makes sense, because my amendment passed the Senate by a vote of 93 to 3, and I had never seen so many dirty looks from people voting in favor of my amendment. All 51 of the Republicans voted in support of my amendment, which says to me right there something is suspect.
It turned out later that several of them stated in the article publicly that they were assured by the Republican majority leadership that the amendment would be dropped in Conference Committee. So they could vote for my amendment even though they were opposed to it, because they were assured that it wouldn’t become law. In Washington, this is considered politics as usual. Anywhere else in the country, I think that’s considered hypocrisy.
BUZZFLASH: Do you think, if push came to shove and we had an honest vote in full daylight, and no hanky-panky in the Joint Conference Committee, would Congress vote to actually put themselves at the same level, and then raise the standards of Medicare recipients? Or would they lower their plan? What do you think would happen?
SEN. DAYTON: Well, that would be a very interesting process to watch. I think that given the budget agreement that’s been reached for this current round, they’d have no choice but to bring their plan down to that of seniors and others in Medicare. But I think they’d be a lot more inclined to try to raise that level up, and perhaps the result would be somewhere in the middle, which is the best that we could probably expect, given this Congressional lineup.
But the bill that the Senate passed for coverage for Medicare beneficiaries would not actually start until January of 2006. That is two and a half years after we passed the bill out of the Senate. And when I tried to move that up by two years on the Senate floor, and Frank Lautenberg had another proposal to move it up by 18 months, we were told the administration’s Department of Health and Human Services just says that’s how long it’s going to take.
A majority of Senators voted to support this two-and-a-half year delay rather than move it forward to benefit their constituents. So if we had to live with nothing better than a discount drug card for the next two and a half years, I think Congress would be a heck of a lot more sensitive to that kind of a ridiculous delay.
BUZZFLASH: What is the discount drug card?
SEN. DAYTON: The discount drug card is basically that, as I understand it, nothing more than what is already available in the market, where you can buy or obtain a discount drug card which gets savings of 10 to 15 percent or so. But the prescriptions in Canada -– the medicines there are the exact same medicine in every respect, except they are 12 to 20 to 25 percent of what they cost in the United States. So if you get a discount of 10 or 15 percent, which is essentially just a gimmick to get people buying those particular products, you’re still paying more than double what you should be.
BUZZFLASH: It’s basically like a plastic coupon card.
SEN. DAYTON: I’m not an expert on the topic, but it’s my understanding it is, as you say, an informal card. It’s kind of like when you go to the record stores or the bookstore, and you buy so many, and then you get a discount.
BUZZFLASH: A frequent purchase discount.
SEN. DAYTON: That’s what it accumulates to be. And again, I’m not disparaging it per se, but it’s a far cry from what seniors have been led to believe for the last few years they’re going to receive under this program.
I think seniors are going to feel that they’ve been betrayed once again by their elected representatives if they’re given a drug discount card instead of comprehensive coverage. Even more tragically, once it finally gets underway in the Senate bill –- in 2006 -– it’s going to be a very inadequate and incomplete coverage with a value of about half of what members of Congress now receive.
BUZZFLASH: Are you hearing a lot of rumbling from seniors in Minnesota?
SEN. DAYTON: I think as they become more aware of this. Now it’s still out there in the abstract. They’ve been waiting so long for this, and many of them are in truly desperate financial straits, that they’re still hoping that what comes out is going to be of immediate benefit to them.
What has happened to a lot of the seniors, particularly in organized labor -– those retirees who have some private pension coverage of prescription drugs –- they’re being warned that they may lose that. Employers may drop their coverage and their pension plans and put them on a much more inferior Medicare-based plan. The Congressional Budget Office says to me that as many as 4 million of the 12 million retirees now in the country who receive some private coverage through their employer would stand to lose that. Now there are a whole group of seniors who say something is worse than nothing. It used to be, something’s better than nothing. Now, for many, something could be worse than nothing.
BUZZFLASH: The whole controversy over Medicare: Republicans claim they have a better plan; the Democrats claim they have a better plan. It’s the old issue of the devil’s in the details. And I think seniors probably just have a hard time figuring out what’s going on.
SEN. DAYTON: Well, this is couched, as you said, in what is supposedly in the best interest of seniors. The New York Times had a couple of articles that were really revealing. They were right on the money in their analysis last week, noting that this is about the pharmaceutical industry keeping any kind of government-negotiated price reductions. They call them price controls. They pointed out that the Veterans Administration uses its purchasing power to buy in bulk, which is exactly what HMOs and large corporations that self insure do.
Those who say we ought to operate government more like a business are just absolutely right. This is a case where the VA has done so, and where Congress and both bills would prohibit the federal government from having any effort whatsoever to reduce the prices -– so you’re going to have subsidized private insurance plans that are going to pay for ever-escalating costs of these medicines. Taxpayer dollars are going to be less efficiently used, and it’s not going to do anything about reducing the price for the vast number of Americans who aren’t on Medicare and who would benefit if those prices were forced down.
BUZZFLASH: Because, as you said, seniors end up, under the administration’s plan, with a discount card that’s really a pharmaceutical company marketing card.
SEN. DAYTON: That’s the short-term gap coverage. But even starting January of 2006 -– and one of the reasons it’s taking so long, we’re told, to put together this plan -- it’s essentially a hybrid of offering subsidized insurance plans. The insurance companies were not initially enthusiastic about this because they don’t see any real benefit in insuring something that’s almost so likely to happen –- the utilization of prescription drugs by seniors. The subsidy is going to have to be sufficient that the insurance companies are going to have an incentive to offer the plans. But they’re going to pay for whatever prices the pharmaceutical industry continues to charge. So the prices go up, especially now that they’ll be partially subsidized by the taxpayer. And so those dollars aren’t going to go as far. The cost of the program will escalate, and then the conservatives will turn around and say, “See, we told you. We have another government program out of control.” Well, if we got the prices of these pharmaceutical products under control, we’d all be paying less.
BUZZFLASH: And many have said that because the prices will be so high, there would be few seniors who could afford the private insurance, so you might end up with actually very few plans offered in the marketplace.
SEN. DAYTON: Well, that’s certainly a risk. Under the Senate plan, the monthly premium was $35 a month. The deductible was $275 a year. Compare that to what the VA is offering, which is a $7 co-pay per a 30-day prescription. That’s what they’re able to do, again by exercising their ability to negotiate the overall prices of these products down, and by other kinds of management devices. But that’s exactly what the Republicans wanted to avoid, and what the pharmaceutical industry wants to prevent -– efficient management of the Medicare expenditures for prescription drugs.
BUZZFLASH: On another note, you’ve been targeted by the Minnesota GOP with a smear campaign full of lies. Do you ever get angry at how down and dirty they get?
SEN. DAYTON: I said the only time to run for office is when your kids are either too young to read or too old to care. And mine are 23 and 20 now, so they know better. I’m used to it. I expect it. It’ll get worse and it’ll continue to be groveling in the sewer if they have their way. And I will do my best to keep focusing my re-election on what I’ve accomplished and what I stand for, versus whoever becomes my opponent.
In the broader sense, I think what they do demeans our democracy and debases the political discourse. I’ve been fortunate, actually: When I ran in 1982, and I lost to incumbent Republican Dave Durenberger, and even in 2000, with a multi-candidate Democratic primary, then a general election with a Republican incumbent and an Independent Party candidate, I thought both of those elections were above the norm in terms of focusing on issues and our differences. And there were legitimate differences, major differences, so voters had real choices. And I think we kept the level of discourse above this kind of ridiculous, known-to-be-untrue smear tactics. But this doesn’t bode well for 2006.
BUZZFLASH: You were close friends with Paul Wellstone, your colleague. What sense of loss do you feel now that you’ve been in the Senate? What has the Senate lost?
SEN. DAYTON: I went to a dedication on Friday in St. Paul for the first facility anywhere in the country named for Paul and Sheila. It was an elementary school, right in the core of the city. And to see these children from pre-kindergarten up through sixth grade, from all different countries, cultures, backgrounds –- it was the spirit of Paul and Sheila. It was really profoundly moving in that respect. But it’s also one more reminder of their absence.
Paul and I were good personal friends for 22 years and political allies throughout that time. Then I was very fortunate to be his colleague for two years and to benefit from his 10 years of experience. I learned so much from his mentorship in those two years; I’m grateful to him for all of that. And then to see him engaged in a tough re-election -– I was his finance chair in ’96 and saw him pull out a really smashing victory there -– and go through a very difficult political environment where Republicans again were smearing him and denigrating his character, his patriotism, his resolve for national security and the like.
When it came down to the vote on the Iraq resolution in October, Paul was the first one on the floor to announce he was opposed to it. His ratings in Minnesota went up as a result, because it reminded people once again of the incredible courage of his convictions and the integrity the man had. I voted the same way with him, and I thought that he was on his way –- clearly the polls were indicating another strong victory in the final election results.
And then this incomprehensible -– and still incomprehensible, in terms of the circumstances -- plane crash. But it happened, and suddenly, 12 days out, he’s cruelly, horribly wrenched away from life and from his leadership in our Democratic Party in Minnesota, and nationally. That void is huge. He was the conscience of our Democratic caucus. We’d be at 50-50 parity if he’d lived and won his re-election. That’s a huge difference from being in the minority by one defeat. If Mel Carnahan and his plane hadn’t crashed two years before, just before that election, we’d be in the majority, so those that say that the Republicans have some mandate in the Senate are just not in touch with reality.
But I miss Paul every day. He was the one you were always sure was going to be on the floor, articulating the strong Democratic position, and encouraging others both publicly and privately in our meetings to do the same. And the hole he’s left in our caucus and in the Senate is just enormous.
BUZZFLASH: Well, Senator, thank you so much for your time.
SEN. DAYTON: You bet. Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
* * *
Also read: "Dayton Reluctantly Votes for Senate Prescription Drug Bill" [LINK]
Contact information for signing petition [LINK]
otherwise noted, all original