Sen. Lisa Murkowski, in Homer last Wednesday for the groundbreaking ceremony for the Seldovia Village Tribe's new medical clinic, also took time to address some differences with her Republican Primary opponent, Mike Miller, and to discuss some of the controversial issues surrounding aspects of the recently signed Medicare Modernization Act.
Murkowski, appointed by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, is seeking re-election in her own right, but has been challenged by Miller for the Republican Party nod. Miller has said Murkowski is too liberal to represent Alaska Republicans.
The Clarion asked Sen. Murkowski to respond to some of Miller's assertions about positions she has taken in the Senate and address some Medicare issues.
Here are her responses.
Clarion: Your Alaska Primary Election opponent, Mike Miller, has accused you of not committing to making President George W. Bush's tax cuts permanent. Where do you stand on those tax cuts?
Murkowski: "I'm really confused as to where he got that information. I have said repeatedly in my campaign information that I have supported President Bush's tax cuts. I voted for them, and I do support making them permanent. It sounded like a nice thing to say, but he's dead wrong."
Clarion: Miller says he opposes Roe v. Wade, abortion and taxpayer funding for abortion. Do you support a woman's right to choose?
Murkowski: "Mike and I are in alignment on some of the issues when it comes to abortion. I was co-sponsor on the ban on partial-birth abortion. I do not support federal funding for abortion accept as it is currently allowed in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.
"I have supported the sense of the Senate that says that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land and should not be overturned. If a woman has to make that very, very, very difficult decision a decision between herself, her doctor and her god she ought to be able to have a safe and legal procedure. So I have supported that.
"But I do believe that Roe v. Wade goes on and allows for reasonable restrictions to the procedure. I think the ban on partial-birth abortions is a reasonable restriction. I have said, and I will continue to support, reasonable restrictions on abortion. But if a woman feels she has to make that very difficult choice, I want to make sure that it is going to be safe."
Clarion: Where do you stand on the so-called school-choice issue?
Murkowski: "Some people flat out call it vouchers. My children actually go to a magnet school in the Anchorage School District and, to me, that is a great example of school choice. We got in a lottery process and our kids are going through a Spanish immersion program that worked out great for us. As parents, we wanted to provide something different for our kids and that worked out fine.
"I don't think that's where Mike Miller is going when he talks about school choice. I think he is specifically talking about vouchers.
"The Alaska Constitution specifically prohibits any public money going toward private or religious education. It is not an issue where, in the United States Senate, I could make a difference or your congressman could make a difference. This is something where if we wanted to allow public funding to a religious school or private school, we would have to amend our constitution."
Clarion: In recent votes, you opposed an amendment on prescription drug imports from Canada, something many states, including Alaska, have at least expressed interest in. You said safety was the issue. What is your position on the issue and could you support re-importation of U.S.-made drugs from foreign countries?
Murkowski: "The importation issue is something that has generated a lot of passion and emotion. People want to see the price of their drugs lowered. I want to see the price of prescription drugs lowered, but I'm not going to do it at the expense of safety.
"If we are going to allow imports, we must know that there is a level of oversight I'd prefer through the Food and Drug Administration but a level of oversight that is going to ensure for the safety of the users of these prescription drugs. I'm looking at three different bills that would allow for importation. I'm looking at one that allows for importation from Canada and looks at opportunities, down the road, to expand that to other countries. But I want to know that we have the FDA safeguards, that there is oversight, that there is going to be labeling that will tell me I'm taking a drug that's been imported a chain of custody, control.
"We want to be quick to be able to cheapen the cost of drugs, but I will not do it at the expense of anyone's life."
Clarion: The Medicare Modernization Act signed into law in December prohibits the Medicare program from negotiating drug prices. You've been quoted as saying that was because prices are based on competitive forces, not government price-setting. Some would argue that government regulation of business has a long history in this country. With so much at stake in terms of citizen health medical and financial why isn't this a case where there should be government price controls?
Murkowski: "That was a matter of great debate and discussion not only when we were considering the Medicare reform bill last year, but in the prior Congress, when the Democrats were directing the bill and directing the senate. It was actually the Democrats' proposal that we not include the government negotiations, if you will. That came out of their version of the Medicare bill, so it's a little bit ironic that they're now the ones that are crying foul that we are not allowing of this.
"I personally believe that the free-market system is a better approach to the competition, and competition brings the price down. We all agree that there is a lot of wait-and-see as to whether or not what we did is actually going to work. I don't think we should be hesitant to revisit this if we are finding that it is not bringing down the price."
Clarion: How long should the wait be?
Murkowski: "I think that we should be reasonable in giving it a chance. There are those who are crying 'Right now! Right now!' Well, we are just now implementing the changes that we passed in the law this winter. We are just now starting the screening for the heart and diabetes, certain aspects of the drug card just kicked in in June. We need to allow for what we put in place to settle in. I think you have got to give it a year or so, but I don't think that we should be afraid to revisit it.
"The issue is open. We cannot be so smart as to predict everything coming down the road, and if it doesn't do what we wanted it to do, what we expected it to do, then we need to revisit it."
In a press release issued Wednesday, Murkowski praised fast action by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that will allow newly enrolled Medicare beneficiaries to receive an initial physical, while all Medicare enrollees will gain cardiovascular screening blood tests, and those at risk will gain diabetes screening starting early next year.
The centers unveiled rules Tuesday for implementing the preventative medical services authorized under the Medical Modernization Act. Murkow-ski said the changes would "really help seniors improve their health," which would help reduce Medicare costs.
Changes approved Tuesday included:
Providing a "welcome to Medicare" physical to new enrollees that will allow doctors to detect problems early and provide education, counseling and referral.
Providing cardiovascular screening tests, including for cholesterol, high-density lipo-protein and triglycerides every five years with no deductibles or co-payments required. Cardiovascular disease is the nations No. 1 killer, claiming 950,000 Americans yearly, 84 percent over the age of 65.
Providing diabetes screening tests, and Medicare will not cover a fasting plasma glucose test and post-glucose treatments with beneficiaries not having to meet a deductible or co-pay for the test. Two screenings tests will be provided yearly. Diabetes ranks sixth in the cause of death, claiming 71,000 lives in 2001. Annually, about 562,000 Americans are diagnosed with diabetes, 36.6 percent being age 65 or older.
"Clearly heart disease and diabetes are major medical problems for seniors. Anything that can help to catch such ailments early can improve the health of seniors and eventually reduce the cost of Medicare for all Americans," Murkowski said.
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