Many health care activists blinked their eyes in disbelief when they read the lead sentence of a front page article of the June 1 New York Times: “The Bush administration told the Supreme Court that it should allow Maine to carry out a state law that tries to force drug companies to reduce the prices of prescription medicines sold in the state.”

Those 35 words said it all: This is an election year and the White House doesn’t dare oppose state efforts to control – or at least impose limits – on the price of prescription drugs. The Times article is also a reflection of the fact that the price of prescription drugs, which has become the biggest cause of skyrocketing health care costs, has also become one of the hottest issues in the run up to the November elections.

The cost of prescription drugs was a major factor in the growth of Medicare HMO plans by private insurance companies during the 1990s. Because these plans offered a small drug benefit, millions of seniors were hoodwinked into leaving the federal Medicare program to enroll in these plans.

But, as this column warned on may occasions, most HMO Medicare plans dropped the drug provision, claiming they could not afford the price of drugs. Thus millions of seniors were added to the rolls of those who lacked prescription drug coverage. That, in turn, added additional pressure on Congress to add a prescription drug benefit to the Medicare program. And it has fueled the growing campaign for states to become involved in the fight over the cost of prescription drugs.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Maine program is that it is not limited to seniors or to beneficiaries of the state’s Medicaid program, but that it applies to everyone.

Many politicians, probably fearing retaliation from the drug companies, told activists that the Maine law would not stand up in a Supreme Court case. They said that one state couldn’t enact these kinds of laws. They were wrong.

The Maine program is now law and offers a ready-made tool for health care activists everywhere. Go to the State of Maine web site (, click the proper icon and get the text of the law. Convert it into the proper legislative language and confront candidates for state office with the results of your labor.

The Bush administration, long a supporter of states’ rights, was caught in a second conundrum in Maine. If they allowed the case to go to the Supreme Court, federal preemption might have won out. So to avoid that confrontation, at least for now, they are backing off.

As a Maine state legislator, Chellie Pingree, now the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, was instrumental in winning legislative approval of the “Rx Law” and has made drug costs the number one issue in her campaign to unseat Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican who has offered her own very weak proposal to provide drug benefits to the through Medicare. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine’s other GOP senator, hailed the decision to let the Maine law stand.

Ever since the failure of the Clinton health plan, the Democratic National Committee, controlled by the right-wing Democratic Leadership Council, has refused to deal with health care issues. Their proposals for a Medicare prescription drug plan have been, at best, feeble.

If we – that’s everyone affected by health care issues – take advantage of new opportunities such as the situation in Maine – history will record this year’s election as the “Health Care is a Human Right Election.”

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