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Tina Smith talks drug prices, healthcare, broadband

U.S. Sen. Tina Smith believes in bringing people together.

"In the last 10 months as senator I've traveled all over the state, had hundreds of community meetings and brought all those voices back to Washington D.C.," she said Tuesday in a phone interview on her way to Bemidji. "If you listen to people, you can find common ground, and that's the position I bring to the Senate."

Targeting expensive drugs

Minnesotans want people in Congress to work together to get things done, not just argue, she said. "I've been able to accomplish a lot," she said.

Smith's very first bill aimed to stop big drug companies from quashing affordable generic drugs. She later introduced a bill to not only lower drug prices, but also save $160 billion over 10 years for Medicare's prescription drug program.

In October, President Trump signed into law a measure she pushed to allow pharmacists to tell customers that they can save money by paying cash for their drugs, rather than using their insurance co-pay.

Her opponent, Republican Karin Housley, has shown herself to be on the side of the big drug companies, Smith said. In the Minnesota Senate, Housley was one of just six senator from both parties that opposed a bill last year that now imposes $20 million in annual fees on pharmaceutical companies to help pay for treatment programs and other costs of the opioid epidemic. "In that case, she was standing with the drug companies," Smith said.

Workforce development has been another big priority for Smith. Her first Minnesota stop as senator was at a local sheet metal fabricator, and she said it's on the top of her radar as she travels around the state. She supports innovative partnerships among Minnesota businesses, high schools, and technical colleges that give students the skills they need for good-paying jobs.

Smith noted that this summer, Trump signed into law a bill she worked on in the Senate Education Committee with both Republicans and Democrats to increase resources for community and technical education.

Broadband needed everywhere

She has also been a strong supporter of bringing broadband to rural areas. As Minnesota's lieutenant governor, she led the state's well-regarded efforts to deploy broadband in rural communities, and the issue remains near and dear to her heart as senator.

The bipartisan Senate Farm Bill includes Smith's Community Connect Grant Program to bring broadband to communities that need it.

There are 250,000 Minnesota households without adequate broadband. "It could mean millions of dollars for Minnesota, which would be a big help," she said. "It's a huge economic development issue."

Since Minnesota's broadband grant program works a lot better than the federal program, Smith said she has been talking to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on how to implement the Minnesota system at the federal level. "He's been very interested," she said.

The Senate Farm Bill in general "is another example of bipartisan work that would really benefit Minnesota agriculture," she said.

Chipping away at healthcare costs

On healthcare, Smith has focused on rural needs. She has taken a leadership role on the bipartisan Senate Rural Health Caucus, meeting with rural hospital CEOs, health providers and patients in Minnesota about their challenges. She worked with Republican Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota to create in the Senate Farm Bill a "Rural Health Liaison" at USDA whose job will be to focus federal health efforts on the needs of rural America.

"I'm all for bringing healthcare costs down," she said."I just don't want to go back to the old days," when pre-existing conditions dictated who could get coverage. "Karin Housley would support that, she has in the past," she said.

Minnesota saved some $60 million by searching out waste and inefficiencies in health insurance bureaucracies, both private and public, Smith said. She is now working on a similar effort at the federal level with U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican doctor from Louisiana.

"Up to 30 percent of money is wasted in the healthcare system," she said.

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