Drug companies are robbers and thieves, according to 1st District Rep. Marion Berry.
The congressman spoke to a small group of mostly elderly residents at the Hardy Senior Citizens Center March 28.
"Basically, the drug companies in this country have a monopoly," he said. "When you take advantage of people who are sick and depend on drugs to live, and you go way beyond what is necessary to make a profit, you're cheating and stealing. You don't have to have a gun to be a robber."
Berry is a former pharmacist himself. Although he hasn't worked in the field in 30 years, he has become the point man in Congress on the issue of drug pricing.
"We pay three times as much for our medicine as they pay anywhere else in the world," Berry said. While it is technically illegal for Americans to buy their medicine in Canada and Mexico to bring back into the United States, the law is not enforced, he said.
The congressman said he had introduced more bills than he can count related to fair pricing of medicine, including one that would allow Americans to buy drugs for the same price here as anywhere else in the world. He is currently working on a bill that would provide American citizens the same prescription drug benefit that federal employees receive.
"It would pay for 80 percent of your premiums, period," he said. It would limit out-of-pocket expenses for medicine to $2,000 a year, it would require the use of generics when they are available, and it would authorize the government to negotiate prices with the drug companies," he added.
"They tell us this would cost between 70 and 80 billion dollars a year," he said. "But that doesn't include the savings from people who get sick and require expensive hospitalization because they weren't able to afford needed drugs."
Berry said he has introduced a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget without touching Social Security and Medicare. He said last year's tax cut contributed to the deficit, as did Congress spending beyond its means.
"That surplus vanished with the new year," he said. "It really never did exist."
But when former farmers in the audience suggested cutting farm subsidies, Berry defended the program.
"I'm one of them (who receives subsidies)," he said. "And I make no apology for it. We don't subsidize them enough to make ends meet. If we hadn't had a farm program we would have lost our producers." Without subsidies, the country would not longer be self-sufficient, and consumers would pay higher prices for food, he said.
Berry said Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling above the current $5.95 trillion, but doesn't have the courage to do it. Instead, he said, Congress will dip into the funds federal employees have paid into their retirement funds.
Hardy Mayor Louie Seibert interjected, "That's how Enron got into trouble."
"The United States today is Enron times a billion," Berry replied.
The congressman blamed big oil companies for high gas prices, as well as our dependence on foreign oil, saying they are the ones who buy the foreign oil. He added that he is not opposed to drilling on Alaska's North Slope.
He said Congress will never provide full Social Security benefits for the Notch Babies, those born between 1920 and 1926. "I wish it wasn't, but that's a lost cause," he said.
While acknowledging that allowing companies to move production out of the country to find cheaper labor costs American jobs, he said he supports free trade. At the same time, he did recently vote to impose a tariff on foreign steel to protect domestic production. Berry is a member of the Blue Dogs, a group of conservative Democrats who frequently vote with Republicans on fiscal issues.
He also defended the lobbying system, despite its abuses.
"Washington, D.C., is a convoluted place," he said. "What's right and sensible is not what you do there. You have to recognize that to keep from going nuts when you do your job."