Medicare Is Not an ATM

This is a warning for senior citizens: Ongoing trade negotiations could be harmful to your health.

One of us is a member of Congress who co-chairs the House Democratic Caucus Seniors Task Force. The other is the head of an advocacy organization that has been working for more than three decades to improve the lives of older Americans. Both of us are closely tracking the ongoing trade debate, and we believe it would have dangerous impacts for access to affordable medicines -- here and abroad.

Last month, the Senate passed trade-promotion, or "fast-track," authority, which would expedite congressional consideration of trade agreements and prohibit Congress from amending any trade agreement negotiated over the next six years. "Fast track" means Congress would only get an "up-or-down" vote on trade agreements that are negotiated for years behind closed doors and not available for public scrutiny.

"Fast-track" authority would clear the way for passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, negotiations that involve 12 Pacific Rim countries. Those negotiations have raised alarm bells with public-health organizations who, like us, believe the agreement could block affordable access to life-sustaining essential medicines.

Over the past months, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry has been trying to get provisions into the TPP that would allow it to boost already-high profits by blocking competition. What they are proposing goes far beyond current international agreements and would reduce your ability to afford the drugs you need. Even worse, it would prevent Congress from enacting legislation to lower drug costs in the future.

And now there is a new threat. Because of concern that the TPP would cost jobs -- another big reason to oppose the deal -- some in Congress are insisting that we extend assistance to dislocated workers before they are willing to lend their support to fast-track legislation and allow the TPP trade deal to move forward. This assistance would come from the Trade Adjustment Assistance program that is designed to help working men and women who lose their jobs because of trade deals.

While protecting Americans against trade-related job losses is a critical priority, it should not come at the expense of seniors, the disability community, or their families. Last month, the Senate passed a bill that would take nearly $1 billion from Medicare to pay for Trade Adjustment Assistance. The Senate bill would cut payments to hospitals and doctors, making access to services more difficult. We oppose those cuts -- and steadfastly oppose any cuts to Medicare benefits or increases in cost sharing. But we also believe that any savings achieved by improving efficiency and cutting waste should be used to improve Medicare -- not for something else.

Allowing Medicare to be used to fund Trade Adjustment Assistance reopens the flood gates for those who would use it to fund other programs. Medicare is not an ATM -- and we must not jeopardize its earned benefits by siphoning it off to pay for other items.

After trade-promotion authority is passed, the TPP and other trade deals will follow closely behind -- creating a whole new danger for Medicare beneficiaries. Seniors and people with disabilities on Medicare -- as well as other Americans -- are already struggling with high drug prices. Yet the provisions in the trade agreement would raise those prices even higher.

Drug companies could get second patents for making minor changes, and generic companies could be denied the ability to get or use clinical data in order to enter the market. A new investor-state dispute-settlement mechanism could allow foreign companies seeking to protect their profits to challenge U.S. policies in a legal mechanism outside the U.S. court system.

One proposal would mandate a 12-year exclusivity period for biologic drugs, during which time generic alternatives would be prohibited. Other countries negotiating the TPP either have no similar requirement or have significantly shorter periods. Only the United States currently has a 12-year exclusivity period.

But many of us -- including the president -- are trying to change that. The administration's budget request to Congress this year recommends reducing the 12 years to seven years, a move that would save Medicare $3.8 billion and lower out-of-pocket drug costs for seniors. If TPP passes, Congress would be prevented from making that change.

We need a fair trade deal that helps generic companies and U.S. businesses compete -- not one loaded with gifts to the brand-name pharmaceutical industry paid for by seniors and people with disabilities on Medicare.

The House should reject "fast-track" authority and push for a trade deal that doesn't put corporate profits ahead of the interests of healthcare consumers.