Candidates’ Rx: Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut
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RAY SUAREZ: Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut will release his plan for dealing with the nation’s uninsured later this summer. Last month he unveiled a proposal for a center for developing cures for chronic diseases such as AIDS, Alzheimer’s, and cancer, among others. He would spend $150 billion over ten years to fund research for drugs, treatments, and vaccines. He joins us now from Capitol Hill.
SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN: Thank you, Ray, good to be with you.
RAY SUAREZ: Tell us about the American Center for Cures.
SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN: Well, I’m very excited about this. I believe that a president should set goals for the country and try to take the American people to a place they would not otherwise get to without strong leadership. I, therefore, set the goal that we ought to be taking some of the miraculous developments that are occurring in laboratories around America today– the Human Genome Project, stem cell research, all sorts of other pharmaceutical breakthroughs– and focus them in an American Center for Cures that has the goal of curing some of the chronic diseases that plague 100 million Americans, more than one-third of our populous, and cost $750 billion a year to treat.
We can do this, but we can only do it with an investment of public money, attractions for private money, and a center to make this a real goal. And I’m talking about exactly the kinds of diseases you’ve talked about. All of us know people with breast cancer, prostate cancer, sickle cell anemia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes. And the experts I talk to say that with all those diseases we are within reach of cures if we really work at it, and I believe this center will be the way to do it. Intently, it will also help us control the cost of health care in America, because as I said, three-quarters of the American health care bill every year is to treat these chronic diseases.
RAY SUAREZ: It’s interesting that you want to put the dollars there instead of in those place where so many medical authorities say you could prevent lifestyle-related diseases without funding all this basic research, stopping obesity, smoking, the sedentary lifestyle that many Americans live. Why this emphasis on basic research and the big dollars?
SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN: Right. Look, as part of my overall health care plan, which I will describe in the months ahead as a candidate for president, I’m going to be talking about the importance of investing and prevention. But, you know, some of the diseases are not preventable in that sense. They just occur in human existence. Some of them are genetic, for instance, and have nothing do with lifestyle or very little to do with lifestyle, and I say if we have the ability to cure some of these diseases, it just seems outrageous that we’re not concentrating that effort.
Incidentally, one of the things that I would do on the first day I enter the Oval Office as president is to rescind President Bush’s unfair ban on restrictions on stem cell research, which really is part of the path to cures for diseases. I meet people whose kids have juvenile diabetes or other diseases, who feel that it’s stem cell research that is the way that their kids will be able to live normal lives. And for the president to have stopped it, or limited it, really is unfair and not in the best interest or doesn’t reflect the best values of our country.
RAY SUAREZ: A lot of your fellow candidates for the Democratic nomination have tried in their plans to deal first with the large number of uninsured Americans. You chose to head out on the cures part of your overall plan first. Why that difference in emphasis?
SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN: It’s all… there’s no question that we have… we have a lot of health insurance problems, or health care problems in America– costs too much, people are losing health insurance; 41 million Americans, including nine million kids, don’t have it; 60 million Americans actually are without health insurance for some part of any given year, so we’ve got to deal with that problem. But I wanted to step back and set a big attainable goal for America and say, let’s have a health care system that cures some of these diseases, helps people live longer, fuller lives, and in the process, incidentally, will help us save on three-quarters of the cost of health care which is for the treatment of chronic diseases.
But, Ray, we’ve got to deal with the health insurance problem, and I’ve already talked about some of my ideas for it. I don’t think you can do it all at once. You’ve got to have priorities. And my first priority would be to cover the children who don’t have health insurance today. I met a mother with her child a while ago, just covered by the children’s health insurance program. She was thrilled because she said before that program went into effect, she just couldn’t get preventive care, regular care for her son who was an asthmatic. And she waited until he had a crisis, an attack, and then rushed him to the emergency room. So, number one, I would have the children’s health insurance program extended to cover every child in America.
I would then allow the parents of children who can’t afford health insurance in the private market up to a certain level of income, maybe 200 percent of poverty, buy into the Medicaid program at a rate that would be lower than they could get in the private market.
And then finally, as a first step– not finally, but as a next big step– I want to deal with the really accurate fear, the realistic fear that so many working people have in this country– millions– that they’re going to be laid off and they’re not going be able to get health insurance. I think the government now has to provide a first-rate temporary health insurance program for the millions of Americans who may lose their insurance at some point in a year.
The final point of my program– and I’m going to reveal it all or disclose and describe it all in more detail as the year goes on– is to offer tax credits for small businesses — real, good, strong tax credits for small businesses, and that means companies that employ up to 50 people to help them pay for health insurance for their workers, because some of the small businesses just can’t afford it anymore. They’re not just cutting back on some of the benefits; they’re actually stopping health insurance for their employees. I think if we give them a tax credit, we can cover millions of other Americans who may lose their health insurance– a great fear that I hear all the time as I go out across America seeking the presidency.
RAY SUAREZ: Senator, briefly before we go, today in Chicago, the president endorsed a plan for the reform of Medicare which would include a prescription drug package and moving large numbers of current recipients into managed care. Do you support that approach?
SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN: Well, it’s a beginning, but I’m troubled by parts of it. The Congress has risen up and pushed the president back on his original proposal to privatize Medicare and to force seniors to go into non-Medicare private insurance programs where they can’t choose their doctor in order to get a prescription drug benefit. Congress now has said to the president, “you can’t do that.” I’m not sure he’s fully abandoned that program, but the congressional alternative… the center alternative right now is still troubling to me, and I want to look at it in more detail, because it still does have private insurance companies come in to set up prescription drug benefit plans. I worry that seniors would have those plans changed every year. Maybe a medicine would be covered one year and not other near.
The basic problem here, Ray, is that the Bush administration has spent so much money on tax plans that don’t work, that haven’t helped our economy, that have put us into debt, that they don’t have enough money left over to do what we should do — and that is to give every senior in America a prescription drug benefit guaranteed under the Medicare plan. That would be my goal.
RAY SUAREZ: Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, thanks for being with us.
SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN: Thank you, Ray.