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Coleman has a strong record on health care'Health Care'

ST. PAUL - In an article recently published in this newspaper, Al Franken discussed the issue of healthcare, unquestionably one of the most important issues facing our nation today. Unfortunately, he was unable to do so without putting forth some inaccurate information and distorting Senator Norm Coleman's record at the same time.

The senator was falsely accused of voting to "prohibit Medicare from negotiating with the pharmaceutical companies in Medicare Part D". The fact is, Senator Coleman was actually one of six Republicans in the Senate to vote last year to take up the Medicare Prescription Drug Price Negotiation Act, legislation to lift the prohibition on government involvement in Medicare Part D drug pricing, and provide more oversight and transparency in the pricing of Part D products. Unfortunately, the motion on the bill fell just short of passage, with a vote of 55 to 42 (S.3, Roll Call #132, 4/18/2007).

Another claim was that not allowing the government to negotiate the cost of Part D drugs has cost seniors and taxpayers "billions of dollars a year." Mr. Franken seems to have ignored the fact that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office did not find any savings to seniors in their analysis of the negotiating authority provision. While Senator Coleman certainly stands by his vote for S. 3 to bring more transparency and oversight to the Part D program, it is misleading to tell seniors that allowing the government to negotiate drug prices will provide enough savings to eliminate the so-called "donut hole." In fact, many experts have concluded that allowing the government to strictly negotiate drug prices would result in restrictive formularies and limited access to the prescription drugs so many seniors rely upon.

Sen. Coleman would be the first to acknowledge that part D is not perfect and he is always looking for ways to improve the program. But we should also note that Medicare Part D has actually saved seniors and taxpayers billions of dollars because of the competition and private insurance options included in the final package. This means that not only is the overall 10-year cost of the program $117 billion less than originally projected, but, according to recent estimates, Part D is saving seniors an average of $1,100 per year on prescription drug costs.

On the larger issue of healthcare reform, Sen. Coleman has been public in his view that our healthcare system is broken and that it needs to be fixed. The question is, what's the best way to get there?

Sen. Coleman believes that the first step is universal access to health insurance coverage, but that doesn't mean we should turn our healthcare decisions over to Washington bureaucrats. Suggestions that a universal healthcare system run by the government will "save money" or "relieve anxiety" are simply inaccurate. Canadians, for example, turn nearly half of their income over to the government in taxes - in large part to fund a healthcare system that leaves nearly one million Canadian patients on waiting lists for medical treatment.

In fact, a number of foreign nations are now realizing that they cannot afford a government-run system without rationing services or significantly raising taxes. That is why many single-payer systems are moving in the direction of more private insurance. Even Canada, due to recent court cases, is considering allowing patients access to private services, and Great Britain is doing likewise.

So, how can we provide universal coverage that is affordable and high-quality, but keeps the decisions in the hands of individuals and their doctors?

First, we need to level the playing field, so people who get health insurance through an employer and those who choose to buy coverage on their own receive the same tax benefits. This way, you can own your health insurance, regardless of your employment status. These tax reforms should also include assistance, in the form of tax credits, for individuals and families who do not make enough money to purchase insurance in the private market.

We also need to help design a more consumer-friendly insurance market. Everyone should have some form of reliable health insurance coverage, and once they have coverage they should not have to stay awake at night worrying about losing it just because they or their child gets sick. Furthermore, people who are unable to get coverage because of a pre-existing condition cannot be left to fend for themselves. That's why I support guaranteed access to a government subsidized high-risk pools. All these reforms will not only help to improve access to quality health care, but also reduce the overall cost of health care services.

Finally, we need to do a better job of rewarding the kind of high-quality, low-cost care for which Minnesota is known. This way we can stop putting all our focus on treating people when they are sick, and put more emphasis on encouraging and rewarding prevention and healthier lifestyles.

The bottom line is that high-quality healthcare coverage can, and should, be universally available to every American. The government's role should be in ensuring access, affordability, reliability and quality, while keeping health care decisions where they belong -- in the hands of you and your doctor.

(Friedrich is Sen. Norm Coleman's Minnesota press secretary.)