Will the Real John Ashcroft Please Stand Up?

Missouri's junior senator says he is a pro-consumer health-care reformist. But the insurance companies, HMOs and big business, which give him millions, think he's on their side.

And in the current election cycle, Ashcroft has accepted at least $382,000 from members of the Business Roundtable, $67,000 from the insurance industry and $48,000 from the other members of the HBC.

June 22 was also the day when Democrats forced a fourth vote on a Medicare drug benefit in the Senate. Standing on the Senate floor, Ashcroft claimed he couldn't support the measure because he hadn't had time to read it.

Sen. Dick Durbin stood up and chastised Ashcroft: "For those who think they can vote against this prescription-drug benefit and go home and explain that it was such a new idea and they didn't have a chance to read it, I can tell them the president has had a proposal here for years. This idea has been out here for years. You have been in control of the committees and in control of the Senate. We have waited for a prescription-drug benefit, but there is nothing to consider from the Republican side." The bill died in a 51-48 vote.

Ken Vuylsteke, chairman of the medical legal committee of the Missouri Bar Association, says Ashcroft's amendment "is another roadblock on the way to getting needed care.... It's really illusory and, in fact, would reduce the rights consumers already have."
Greg Lahann/Newsmakers Photos
Ken Vuylsteke, chairman of the medical legal committee of the Missouri Bar Association, says Ashcroft's amendment "is another roadblock on the way to getting needed care.... It's really illusory and, in fact, would reduce the rights consumers already have."
John Ashcroft, who from 1994-98 accepted more than $600,000 in campaign contributions from the Business Roundtable and about $250,000 from the health-insurance industry, became a zealous supporter of a patients' bill of rights that the American Medical Association called "a sham."
Richard Ellis/Newsmakers Photos
John Ashcroft, who from 1994-98 accepted more than $600,000 in campaign contributions from the Business Roundtable and about $250,000 from the health-insurance industry, became a zealous supporter of a patients' bill of rights that the American Medical Association called "a sham."

But Ashcroft, who has taken at least $81,500 this election cycle from the pharmaceutical industry (including $50,000 from Schering-Plough), continued stumping for the industry's proposal to offer federal subsidies to insurance companies to provide the drug benefit.

Meanwhile, by the end of July, Public Citizen had issued a report titled "Prove It Isn't So, Sen. Ashcroft" regarding his support of the Claritin bill, the Post-Dispatch printed a scathing editorial titled "The Senator from Claritin," and the Christian Science Monitor published the story "Profits, Politics, and a Drug Patent." In addition, Ashcroft's challenger to his re-election bid, Gov. Mel Carnahan, began handing out press-release indictments like party favors.

Cameron, of the Campaign for Fair Pharmaceutical Competition, says that he expects Ashcroft and other supporters of the bill to try attaching it in conference to a spending bill that has already passed both House and Senate. That way, he says, there's little anyone can do to stop it.

"These conference-committee meetings are always private and behind closed doors, so one of the conferees -- appointed by the House and Senate leadership -- will slip this provision in at the request of Schering-Plough," says Cameron. "Once the conference report goes back to the House and Senate, they can only be voted on in their entirety. There is no ability to amend or delete anything. Since appropriations bills are required by law to pass every year, they're trying to do this in the cover of the night."

Meanwhile, Ashcroft is busy polishing his image. "Key Issues: Promoting Affordable Healthcare," one window on John Ashcroft's campaign Web site, currently reads. "Ashcroft understands the importance of quality healthcare in our lives. His work for health care includes a Patients' Bill of Rights, help for seniors with the cost of prescription drugs, better health care for women and children...."

See sidebar, Unhealthy Relationship, for more information.

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