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Sat., Dec. 22, 2012, midnight

Guest opinion: Allow Medicaid, Medicare to bargain with pharmaceutical companies

I’m the son of Texas ranchers, the member of a military family and a former social worker with the Veterans Administration, and I believe in preserving and strengthening Medicaid, Medicare and care for veterans.

Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress are conducting a stealth attack on the programs that Americans’ lives depend on, including Medicaid and Medicare, all in the guise of deficit reduction.

Health care for millions hangs in the balance.

 There’s no need to slash these programs, which help drive our economy, generate jobs and deliver health care to tens of millions, including many of the veterans I served as a psychiatric social worker. But, still, Republicans in Congress are talking about raising the eligibility age for Medicare, shifting more costs to the states and asking enrollees to incur higher costs.

 Cuts like these will have devastating results. They could mean seniors losing nursing home care, women missing breast cancer treatments, children going without asthma medications. And the majority of today’s working- and middle-class veterans, who have made tremendous personal sacrifices for our country, would also suffer from these cuts to Medicaid and Medicare.

 Yet, while Republicans are intent on shifting the economic burden to the middle class, they refuse to ask the wealthy and large corporations to pay their fair share.

 Rather than demanding more from everyday people, Congress should be demanding accountability from the big pharmaceutical companies that are doing obscenely well in these tough times. Lawmakers should, once and for all, allow Medicaid and Medicare to negotiate more reasonable drug prices from Big Pharma, just as the Veterans Administration does.

In 2011, 12 Fortune 500 drug manufacturers pulled in combined profits of $49.3 billion. One company, Merck, saw its profit explode by more than 600 percent compared to 2010. Meanwhile, the top 10 pharmaceutical companies’ CEOs took in pay of almost $200 million in 2011. That is $20 million per CEO per year, a world away from the earnings of our men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

 Big Pharma pours millions into lobbying – $152.9 million in 2009 – so it can hold on to profits and compensation like this. It wants Medicaid and Medicare to have their hands tied when it comes to bargaining for better prices.

 Letting those programs negotiate with Big Pharma would result in huge savings for the programs. The inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services estimates lowering costs by $261 million each year, just for the Medicaid program. This would more than cover the $900 million, over 10 years, that is being discussed in federal budget talks.

 If lawmakers don’t take up this option, we can only wonder what their priorities are. Are they really concerned about cutting the deficit? Or do they just want to increase profits for the rich?

 When I joined the military, I was following in the footsteps of my father, a World War II veteran. My son is serving in the U.S. Army now. But military service isn’t the only family tradition I’m committed to.

 My mother and father grew up dirt poor during the Depression, and knew it was the combination of their hard work and New Deal government programs that gave families hope and support when the economy wasn’t working. They believed that public investments in our health were good investments.

Now is no time to turn back the clock. The rich must be made to pay their fair share – and this includes the big drug companies, too.

The working men and women of America, and our many veterans, must not be forgotten, shorted or slighted by our congressional leadership. It’s time for Congress to listen to the needs of their constituents – before it’s too late.


Carroll McInroe is a veteran and former psychiatric social worker with the Veterans Administration. He lives in Spokane and is an active member of Washington Community Action Network.

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