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December 8, 2012

Maine Voices: 'Fiscal cliff' debate less about money, more about what matters

By HEIDI BROOKS, M.D.

We are hearing a lot about the "fiscal cliff." Unless Congress acts on the budget, automatic cuts to federal programs will go into effect at the end of the year. At the same time, the Bush tax cuts are set to expire. These tax cuts disproportionately benefit the wealthiest among us. In order to avert this "fiscal cliff," the White House and Congress are trying to negotiate a budget deal.

This deal represents a clear choice: economic justice for all or more for millionaires and billionaires.

At the heart of the matter is whether the federal budget should be balanced by making corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share, or should the budget be balanced by slashing critical programs that families depend on for their well-being. President Barack Obama has supported the former, raising revenue, and House Republicans the latter, cutting services.

Cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security would be devastating. These cuts will harm everyone, because the loss in dollars will take a toll on jobs and economic growth when we need it most. These cuts would directly harm the most vulnerable people in our population the most. Threatening to take away one's access to health care is inhumane. Health care is a basic human right.

If House Republicans and other members of Congress are serious about cutting health care costs, there are alternatives that won't harm Medicaid and Medicare recipients.

Let's bring the pharmaceutical companies to the table to negotiate lower drug prices. Americans pay more for prescription drugs than any other nation. Our veterans and clients of the National Indian Health Service already pay less for prescriptions because they negotiate the prices. We should also negotiate medication prices for Medicare and Medicaid patients.

Tremendous cost savings can be achieved by leveraging the mass purchasing power of Medicaid and Medicare. The Health and Human Services inspector general estimates that the federal government could save $261 million per year by negotiating Medicaid drug prices, or $2.6 billion in Medicaid savings over 10 years. If Medicare obtained the same drug prices as the VA, it would save $510 per beneficiary per year, or a total of $14 billion per year.

Sadly, while the pharmaceutical lobby can afford to negotiate, the industry is spending millions to avoid this solution. The top 10 pharmaceutical companies alone raked in over $43 billion in profits in 2011. Their profits are projected to increase with more Americans getting health care coverage through the Affordable Care Act.

It's not surprising that the pharmaceutical industry is spending hundreds of millions of dollars buying influence in Washington to keep drug prices high. Pharmaceutical companies spent nearly $153 million on lobbying in 2011; they employ 876 lobbyists, equal to nearly two for each member of Congress; and they made $14.7 million in contributions through the 2012 election cycle. 

It's time for Congress to do the right thing and make pharmaceutical companies pay their share.

We also need to let the Bush tax cuts expire for those making over $250,000 per year, while having them continue for those making less than that income.

These are more than just dollars-and-cents decisions. They're also choices about what matters in our country. I don't believe that only corporations and the super-rich matter. It's time for members of Congress to show that they agree.

It is time to put the health of our citizens above the special interests of the wealthy individuals and corporations.

Heidi Brooks, M.D. is co-chair of the board at Maine People’s Alliance.





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