Congress on Drugs
The Democrats have a terrific issue in prescription-drug coverage, but their
caution on budgetary politics and deference to the pharmaceutical industry could
blow their advantage. President George Bush says he supports drug coverage, but
his budget allows only stripped-down coverage for the poor and near-poor. The
catch: They first have to spend a lot of money out-of-pocket and most of them
can't afford to do so. It's a phony bill; but except for a few stalwarts like
Ted Kennedy and Paul Wellstone, the Democrats are reluctant to pit a decent drug
bill against the Bush tax cut.
Enter grass-roots organizing. USAction has teamed up with Public Citizen and
Families USA to help push the pill problem onto center stage. According to
research from the Center for Policy Alternatives ( TARGET="outlink">www.cfpa.org), here's the
dilemma. One-quarter of the population, and more than half the elderly, don't
have prescription-drug coverage. Drug prices have been rising at nearly twice
the rate of inflation. Drug companies charge varying amounts for drugs; and theuninsured pay, on average, about twice as much as the federal government does for
the same medicines. As a result, people living on limited incomes often have to
choose between filling prescriptions and eating.
Several key constituencies are directly affected: Seniors make up only 12
percent of the population, yet they consume one-third of the drugs. Unions
generally have health coverage as a bargaining issue, and the cost of
prescription drugs is crowding out other benefits. Low-income people who rely on
state-funded medical-assistance programs are also experiencing recoil because
states are cutting those programs to compensate for inflated drug prices.
Potentially, this is one powerful coalition. A serious prescription-drug plan
would be part of Medicare. It would include price controls on drugs--and relying
on the federal government's bargaining power--or the cost would be prohibitive.
At present the Department of Veterans Affairs buys drugs for its VA hospitals in
just this manner; but even most Democrats have been skittish about embracing
price controls or proposing full funding for adequate coverage. Why? Price
controls would mean challenging both the vogue for free markets and the powerful
pharmaceutical industry, which enjoys special patent protection and charges
whatever it wants. Adequate funding would require a repeal of the Bush tax cut.
If ever there were an issue where grass-roots organizing could move Congress,
this is it. "People are hot about this," notes USAction's Jeff Blum, "especially
seniors. And seniors understand politics and have time on their hands." Last
year, 1,000 retirees shut down the Illinois state senate by being so rowdy at a
rally that lawmakers couldn't conduct business.
At the state level, legislators and activists--borrowing ideas from victories
in Florida, California, and Maine--have created the Fair Market Drug Pricing Act,
which coalitions around the country are backing; and a bill recently made it
through the Washington state senate. In states that border Canada, where there
are national health insurance and affordable drugs, mainstream politicians
support price controls. The issue feels a lot like campaign finance reform: The
people get it first, and Congress gets it last. For more information, go to
Roe v. Bush
Although the 29th anniversary of the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade
came and went on January 22 without much media attention, reproductive-rights
organizations were revving their engines. With the Bush administration opposed to
abortion, and even taking recent steps to provide health care for fetuses,
pro-choice organizations are mounting efforts to block possible setbacks to the
1973 landmark case.
Reproductive-rights organizations are heavily targeting Bush's falsely
altruistic attempt to promote state-sponsored health care for fetuses. In
proposing that embryos become individual recipients of government services,
pro-lifers are attempting to thwart abortion rights by legislating that fetuses
be considered persons under the law.
Not surprisingly, groups such as Planned Parenthood and the National
and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) are leading the charge in
Bush's tactics. Both have established Web sites geared strictly toward monitoring
the Bush administration's position on reproductive rights. NARAL's new site,
provides resources and ways to get involved in the battle.
And now that Bush has openly stated that "unborn children should be welcomed in
life and protected in law," several donors to NARAL have offered to double every
gift to the organization until March 31.
Support for this issue does not stop with individuals writing checks. There
are also "Celebrity Teams" sponsored by Million4roe.com, a project of the
Feminist Majority. "Be the first Team to reach 250,000 members," the Web site
says, "and the Feminist Majority will send 5,000 metal coathangers to George W.
Bush--1 for each of the US women who will die in the first year from
botched illegal abortions if Roe is overturned."
Activism for reproductive rights doesn't just take place on the Internet. In
early April, Hampshire College will host the 16th annual conference "From
Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building a Movement for Reproductive Freedom"
in Amherst, Massachusetts. Recommended for community and student activists, this
symposium is free.