Stabenow talks mental health, drug prices at forum

Debbie Stabenow | Susan J. Demas

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) updated constituents on legislation lowering drug prices and discussed the difficulties of ensuring affordable health care during a public forum Friday in East Lansing. 

“Health care is personal; we need to focus on this as a basic human right. It doesn’t matter who you are; it doesn’t matter if you vote or not vote; you’re going to get sick and somebody in your family is going to need health care,” she told the audience of about 200.

One of Stabenow’s major focuses is lowering the cost of prescription drugs. Stabenow sponsored the Know the Lowest Price Act, which was signed into law last year. It ended the prohibition on many pharmacists to tell patients if they can pay less for some medications by not using their insurance.

Stabenow wants companies to lower drug prices

When it came to figuring out who was enforcing the ban, Stabenow said nobody came forward.

“Everybody blamed everybody else. Retailers, the drug companies — everybody said, ‘Nobody did it,’” Stabenow said at the forum. “I said, ‘Well great, if nobody does it then you won’t care if we pass this bill.’”

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow at a health care forum, Sept. 6, 2019 | Anna Liz Nichols

Within the passage of Medicare Part D in 2003, which added drug coverage onto Medicare, there’s a “non-interference” clause that bans the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from negotiating better prices with pharmaceutical companies. Stabenow’s Empowering Medicare Seniors to Negotiate Drug Prices Act would end the clause in Part D and allow the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary to negotiate with drug companies to lower prices.

Stabenow said she’s also led an effort to allow U.S. citizens to import legal drugs from Canada, typically for 40% less than American retail prices.

The Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act Stabenow supports allows the HHS secretary to enact regulations for U.S. pharmacies, wholesalers and individuals to import drugs from licensed Canadian sellers.

“The No. 1 brand-name drug, is Humira — retail price is $50,000 a year [in the United States],” Stabenow said of the common drug used by arthritis and Crohn’s disease patients. “Medicare negotiation should be done; we should be opening our borders and it’s something I’ve been working on for years.”

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On a smaller scale, Stabenow said she’s looking to pass laws that empower communities to access vital health care services in their neighborhoods and schools.

Stabenow is advocating for the School-Based Health Centers Reauthorization Act that would provide financial reimbursement to schools to employ medical professionals for students.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow at a health care forum, Sept. 6, 2019 | Anna Liz Nichols

“Sometimes … the only nurse or medical professional a child will see is in the school,” Stabenow said. “It’s really difficult to get additional funding for health care.”

Big conversations about health care as a human right need to happen, Stabenow said, as well as conversations about the importance of treating mental health. She said one recent change has been senators sharing their candid stories about personal and family-based mental health struggles.

Stabenow said her own father struggled when he was misdiagnosed with a mental disorder. She added that one out of five people in the country will have a mental illness in his/her lifetime and the leading cause of death for people younger than 50 is a substance abuse overdose. Mental health is being examined more closely than ever by the medical community, she said.

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As part of the nationwide debate over gun violence, some have linked mass shootings to mental health disorders. Stabenow said we cannot allow misinformation and fear stop progress in reforming mental health services.

“When we talk about mental health, it’s always a challenge because of the gun debate. People are saying we shouldn’t be doing anything about guns which is also a public health issue,” Stabenow said “But while we want to get mental health support, we don’t want the stigma. … It’s a tricky thing. I’m trying to keep these a little bit separate this fall because we need to be talking about mental health more broadly in a way that doesn’t put a stigma on mental health.”

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