Going Down the Road
o, my momma called, "Why are they letting them gouge us like this?" she wanted to know. "They" are our so-called political leaders in Washington, and "them" are the drugmakers now costing her $500 a month. Nearing 87, Lillie Mabel Hightower has to take two medicines regularly, including a heart pill to keep the old ticker ticking. She tells me her pill bill goes up just about every time she refills her two prescriptions, having soared 40 percent in only two years. For someone on Social Security, the difference between $3,600 a year and $6,000 a year is a serious piece of change. "Of course I know why," she quickly added in answer to her own question: "It's the big money they give the politicians. But can't we do something? Who do I write?"
Like my mom's, the blood pressure of millions of seniors and others has reached the political boiling point because of price-gouging by big drug companies. Americans pay the highest prices in the world for prescriptions--an average of 30 percent more, for example, than Canadians pay for the exact same drugs. The companies jacked up our prices by another 17.1 percent last year while they went laughing to the bank with the highest profit margins of any industry, more than triple the average of all Fortune 500 corporations.
Political consultants in Washington recognize the explosiveness of this issue, so there has been a flurry of bills, press conferences and photo-ops by both parties, with each claiming that it cares more than the other about the problem. But, as Hemingway once advised, never mistake motion for action. No lobbying group is as well financed and well connected as the drug industry is in our capital city. It has 625 registered lobbyists on its payroll--ninety more lobbyists than there are members of Congress! The industry also liberally greases the skids of the legislative process with huge campaign donations, topping $26 million in the last election cycle. The result is that Washington postures, drug prices keep going up and seniors continue to seethe.
Still, my mother asks, "Can't we do something?" Yes.
As Maine Goes...
Look to the states where citizens' groups have teamed up with legislative leaders who not only are in motion but have taken action. While Washington fiddles and faddles, twenty-six states now have some sort of program to cut drug costs, at least for the low-income elderly, and several are leading the way toward programs to take the gouge out of prescription prices for everyone.
Chellie Pingree led the charge in Maine. A small businesswoman, she was elected to the State Senate, where she took up the cause of seniors being pounded by drug prices so high that some were forced to choose between paying for essential medications or the heating bill. With the leadership of grassroots groups like the Maine People's Alliance, Consumers for Affordable Health Care and the Maine State Council of Senior Citizens, she led busloads of seniors on well-publicized trips across the Canadian border to buy their medicines; on just one trip, twenty-five seniors got prescriptions filled for $16,000 less than in the United States. Why should people have to take a six-hour bus ride to get fair prices, she asked? She answered by sponsoring the Fairer Prescription Drug Prices Act, which empowered a state pricing board to set retail prices in Maine.
Pingree's bill allowed seniors to go into any pharmacy in Maine and get the prescriptions they need at the same discounted price that Canada's government negotiates with drugmakers for its citizens. Her bill was simple, comprehensive, nonbureaucratic, effective...and it drove the big drugmakers bonkers. They dispatched their own buses to Augusta, loaded with lobbyists and money, in a frantic effort to kill the bill. In a blitz of TV and newspaper ads, the industry labeled the bill "a crazy idea" that would force the drug industry to abandon Maine. But the grassroots groups went to work, and Pingree, by now the Senate majority leader, took her bill directly to the people, holding public meetings from Madawaska to Biddeford. On April 12, 2000, her bill passed in both houses of the legislature by veto-proof margins, and the governor signed it.
Of course, the industry immediately hitched up a twenty-mule team of lawyers and rushed to federal court, but Maine's price-control law has been upheld all the way through the appeals court level and now awaits judgment at the US Supreme Court. Meanwhile, twenty-three other states, from Arizona to Wisconsin, are considering Maine's fair-pricing law, and public pressure from people like my momma is turning up the heat for national legislation.
Pingree, who is now running for the US Senate, has put the issue at the center of her campaign, vowing to bring the populist coalition behind the Maine Solution into play nationally. "There's such a disconnect between Washington and people's reality," she says. "This is more than an issue to people, it's personal outrage. Walk into any room, and it doesn't matter if the people are in overalls or suits; they've all got a story."
USAction, a network of state and local citizens' coalitions, has been a leader in developing the state proposals, and it's now working with other groups to move this public grievance from the low, slow backburner of Congress to the forefront of the progressive agenda (202-624-1730 or www.usaction.org). "This is a case where the people are miles ahead of the politicians," points out USAction's executive director, Jeff Blum, urging that progressives in Congress put forth a "fair pricing" plan that would give every senior the lowest price available on every drug. The key is not merely to provide universal coverage but to connect this to effective controls over the industry's ripoff prices. US citizens should pay no more than the average price that the drugmakers charge foreign customers in Canada, Japan, Italy and elsewhere.
If Congressional Democrats have a strategic bone left in their bodies, they'll grab this proposal and run with it, for the Lillie Mabel Hightowers are desperately looking for someone who'll stand with them against the drug profiteers. As pollster Celinda Lake reports, "This is the most powerful and intense issue of the 2002 elections, and Democrats should take the lead." If the party won't even stand up for our mommas, who'll stand up for the party?