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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) at the Capitol

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) walks through the halls of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

Arizona Groups Demand Sinema 'Stop Obstructing' on Medicare Expansion

The diverse coalition called on the Democratic senator to back "bold drug pricing reform" and "critical improvements to Medicare's coverage" in the reconciliation package.

Jessica Corbett

As Democrats' sweeping Build Back Better package hangs in the balance largely due to a pair of corporate-backed members working to water down their own party's budget reconciliation bill, two dozen Arizona groups joined with Public Citizen on Wednesday to pressure their obstructionist U.S. senator to support keeping various improvements to Medicare in the package.

"Sen. Sinema seems to have forgotten... that all legitimate law comes from the people, not pharmaceutical companies."

The diverse coalition sent a letter to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who along with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has impeded the upper chamber's passage of a package that would invest $3.5 trillion over a decade in climate action, the care economy, and other top priorities.

The Arizona groups urge Sinema to support not only allowing Medicare to negotiate with Big Pharma for lower prescription drug prices but also expanding the federal healthcare program to cover dental, vision, and hearing services, capping out-of-pocket costs, and lowering the eligibility age by at least five years, to 60.

"You have a tremendous opportunity to deliver for America's seniors, people with disabilities, and people approaching retirement," the letter says, recognizing the tremendous need for reform on a national level.

Highlighting how much Americans pay for prescriptions, the letter argues that "bold drug pricing reform will support building a healthier America, as well as produce hundreds of billions of dollars in savings to reinvest in bolstering coverage."

"It is also time to enact critical improvements to Medicare's coverage," the letter adds. "Given the challenges seniors faced during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is time to deliver the relief that they need. Coming out of the crisis, many seniors will need additional services."

The groups also emphasize the impact proposed changes would have on Sinema's constituents, noting that dropping the eligibility age to 60 "would mean giving the peace of mind that Medicare enrollees already have to an additional 439,000 Arizonans and 20 million Americans."

The policies detailed in the letter are popular both in Arizona and across the nation. Public Policy Polling found earlier this month that 73% of voters across all parties in Sinema's state support allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices and 79% support using those savings to provide hearing, dental, and vision benefits to people enrolled in the program.

Melinda St. Louis, director of Public Citizen's Medicare for All campaign, noted that "a broad coalition of Arizona organizations calling on Sen. Sinema to be a champion of these reforms mirrors the national movement in favor of these commonsense and popular reforms."

The message to the Arizona Democrat came the same day as another letter from over 60 groups calling on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to deliver on their "long-standing promises" to pass drug price negotiation.

St. Louis said Wednesday that "Sen. Sinema must stop obstructing President [Joe] Biden and his Build Back Better plan in order to provide Americans access to medicines and lifesaving healthcare coverage and fulfill Democrats' campaign promises," a sentiment that was shared by members of other groups that signed on to the letter to the senator.

"The American people have been getting ripped off by drug companies for decades," said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association and former director for the Arizona Department of Health Services.

"A broad coalition of Arizona organizations calling on Sen. Sinema to be a champion of these reforms mirrors the national movement in favor of these commonsense and popular reforms."

"In a way, it's our own fault because our elected representatives in Congress continue to prohibit Medicare from negotiating with the drug companies," Humble added. "All we need is for Sen. Sinema to open the door and do the right thing, let Medicare finally negotiate. Now."

Medicare expansion "would improve the overall health of seniors, avoid thousands of medical bankruptcies, and prevent countless avoidable deaths," said AZ Medicare for All Coalition chair Ken Kenegos, who also called out Sinema for prioritizing the interests of large corporations that have seen profits soar during the pandemic.

Mik Jordahl, vice chair of the Arizona Democratic Party Progressive Council, pointed out that Sinema has raked in huge donations from the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. "In 2018 Sen. Sinema promised lower drug prices if elected. Now she is adamantly against allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices. What changed?" Jordahl said. "I'd suggest the hundreds of thousands of dollars of Big Pharma money she is receiving."

Dianne Post, an attorney with the Central Arizona National Lawyers Guild, said that "Sen. Sinema seems to have forgotten since her days as an NLG member that all legitimate law comes from the people, not pharmaceutical companies."

Patti Serrano, a Progressive Democrats of America leader in Arizona, outlined why the people need the drug pricing reform.

"It means providing some breathing room for those rationing and postponing needed medication and care due to our current unaffordable costs," Serrano said. "It means the dignity of parents like mine; their ability to clearly see their grandchildren behind covered prescription eyeglasses and an ability to enjoy a full meal with covered dental care."

"It would be immoral to turn a thumbs down on millions by not supporting an expansion and improvements on Medicare," she added. "These are the real needs and demands of so many Arizonans who elected our senior senator to deliver on promises, support the president's agenda, and improve the lives of Arizonans in a meaningful way."

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