Don’t Just Stand There, Do Something!

Published January 1, 2004

Senator Chris Lauzen spoke at the National Symposium on Drug Importation, held in Chicago on October 23, 2003. Lauzen has represented the 25th district of Illinois since 1993. A CPA and Harvard MBA, he serves as minority spokesperson on the Committee on Revenue and co-chairman of the bipartisan Legislative Audit Commission. The following has been edited for length.

Do you remember the expression when you were young, “Don’t just stand there; do something”? Well, it’s not only the title of my remarks, but the spirit behind my effort for the past two years to reduce the cost of health care in Illinois. I can’t solve the whole thing, but I’m trying to start with any component, and then do something about it.

People Demand Action

I face and listen to the people whose lives depend on the theories we’re talking about today. The folks I work for, number one, hate to pay their property taxes. That’s the number one complaint I get in my office. But the other is that they don’t understand why, on average, prescription medication costs twice as much in the United States as it does in Canada. That’s the question.

I just got more of the answer this morning on why tamoxifen to treat breast cancer costs 10 times more here than in Canada. I’m buying my ticket this morning to get on the train. The lady in front of me has been struggling with cancer for two years. She asked me that question, about why it costs 10 times more. Now, that kind of price difference is wrong. I think every person in this room knows it’s wrong. No matter how you peel away the economic theory, you know that it’s wrong.

The horror stories are true. I field calls every day from people choosing between eating and prescription medication, splitting their pills in half. I learned today–and I marked down a note because I need to think about it some more–that I guess our seniors are spending more drinking and getting entertained than they spend on their prescription medication. Some folks would be insulted by that.

But the bottom line, the message I bring today, is that the status quo is unacceptable. It’s not just older people who are talking to me about this; it’s also doctors, because they hear from their patients every day. Doctors are telling me, “Chris, you’ve got to do something.”

Small businessowners are asking me, “What the heck are you going to do, Lauzen, about my health insurance costs going up double digits? It went up last year and then again this year.” I got a letter the other day from one of the top 40 emergency heart specialist surgeons in this country. His premiums for malpractice went from $50,000 a couple of years ago to $550,000. And now his answer is to withdraw his services either from Illinois or altogether from that field. And I think, what an enormous loss. Something has to be done.

I have a group of folks who come from all walks of life who will help me do my work on a volunteer basis. One of those people started to do research, and we found an organization called United Health Alliance in Vermont. Dr. Beth Wennar was working on this same program, and we thought, well, we’ll bring that knowledge to Illinois and try to apply it for the benefit of the people here. We’ve called it I have no financial stake in the operation.

We do two things on the website. One is it’s an information clearinghouse. There are a lot of good programs out there, and a lot of good programs the drug manufacturers have brought forward. Links to information about the Circuit Breaker, Senior Care, the Veterans Administration, Medicare/Medicaid, and drug manufacturers’ discount cards are all on one side of the page. For those who don’t qualify for these subsidy programs, we expedite the ordering process through Canada. The point is to drive down the cost of prescriptions by shining a light on the disparity, pull down the barriers, encourage competition, but one way or the other, get going on that process.

Drug Manufacturers Aren’t Helping

Here’s my experience with the drug manufacturers’ reaction to those who try to reduce the costs of the medications they’re now buying. First of all, they try to confuse us. They say it’s illegal. Well, I’m under the impression that if it’s for personal use, no controlled substance, prescription acceptable to my pharmacist and also the Canadian pharmacist, then it’s legal. But let’s concede that point and let’s look at the thousands of people every day who go across the border in busloads or through the Internet.

I say that a law that’s not enforced is not a law.

If they can’t confuse us, they try to scare us. “It’s not safe!” But the governor’s delegation just got back from their inspection of pharmacies and drug companies in Canada and they say the systems in place in Canada are very similar, if not more thorough, than our own systems for taking care of quality. The premise of that argument is that people in Canada, human beings in Canada, are different from human beings in the United States, that somehow they’re less concerned about safety than we are. They’re not, of course, and so of course they have in place rules and regulations that are similar to our own.

And then there is the fact that many of these drugs are manufactured in the United States. They go in a big box. They go over to the Canadian pharmacy. One of the sealed containers gets put in a package and then sent back into the United States. And people say, well, if there’s a problem in that originally sealed bottle, are you really saying we ought to take a harder look at how we manufacture prescription medications here in Illinois or in the United States?

The third thing I see is, if they can’t confuse or scare us, they cut off the supply of drugs. If a little old lady from Aurora, Illinois or Peoria, Illinois wants to use the same free-market, global economy that drug companies use to earn their profits to buy her prescription medication to keep herself alive–goes to Canada, in other words–these folks want to cut them off. Now, I have to tell you, that makes people angry.

Let me summarize my concerns. There’s a lot of money on the table here, and I understand that. The people who we all serve, either as customers or constituents, are actually angry. The objective is not to vilify drug manufacturers; that’s not what we’re here to do. But we are here to ask them to sell their drugs to us, their fellow U.S. citizens, for what they are selling to Canadian citizens. We just don’t want to pay twice as much as our neighbors. Folks are insisting, don’t just stand there; do something!