WASHINGTON – In Rep. Mike Michaud’s (search) northern Maine district, seniors don’t just threaten to cross the border into Canada to buy cheaper prescription drugs, they do it, and often.
"The bottom line is, if my constituents can continue to go over the border, they will," the Democratic freshman told Foxnews.com in a recent interview.
Michaud voted against last year’s massive Medicare Reform Act (search) because he said the prescription drug benefit wasn’t good enough. In addition, he said the bill would not allow the re-importation of drugs at lower costs, or give the government the ability to negotiate better drug prices with the pharmaceutical companies.
He said his own cross-border bus trips with seniors have given him perspective on what is needed to advance the drug issue.
In one trip, he said, "they saved $19,000 just going over the border. And it’s been pretty consistent every time."
When Michaud, who worked as a paper mill worker for 28 years in Maine’s great North Woods, served as a state senator in the late 1990s, he introduced Maine RX (search), which would allow the state to negotiate prices with the drug companies for Mainers. That program is still running into legal roadblocks, but that hasn’t stopped the congressman from introducing the America RX Act in 2003, which brings the same idea to a national level.
Such negotiating power was not included in the sweeping Medicare legislation. Michaud has said he is explaining that to seniors in his travels across the enormous 2nd Congressional District. He said he's also expressing his disappointment that better discounts were not included.
"I don’t think anything will happen under the current administration that will help citizens with their prescription drugs — you couldn’t find a better administration to represent (drug companies’) needs," he said. "It’s something that affects everyone here in the United States and it also affects businesses.
"One of the things I hear over and over again from small-business people is that they want to give their employees health insurance, and those who can want to give more," but it’s too expensive, he added.
This talk is particularly poignant in Michaud’s district — a rugged, mostly rural landscape with a proud tradition of farmers, fishermen, and laborers who have seen a 22 percent loss in the manufacturing base from July 2000 to August 2003.
The congressman blames, in part, free trade treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement (search) for bleeding industry, like the paper mills, out of the country. He recently started a new labor caucus in the House with other Democratic members to promote workers’ issues.
"The 2nd District has a lost a lot of manufacturing jobs — so he’s been a strong critic of NAFTA in the House," and a strident voice for better trade policies, said Rep.Tom Allen, D-Maine, who represents the southern half of the state and considers Michaud a good friend and colleague.
"Basically, the issues here are jobs, outsourcing (search), especially in a district that has been suffering economically," he added.
But not everyone agrees with that assessment of blame for the economic instability, nor do they appreciate Michaud's voting against the first ever Medicare prescription drug discounts. And in a district that is about one-third Republican, one-third Democrat and one-third independent, a good chance exists that Michaud’s opponent can convince enough voters he voted the wrong way.
"I think he abandoned the senior community by not voting for the prescription drug plan," said Brian Hamel (search), Michaud’s Republican opponent. "That bill can always be tweaked in the future and enhanced. And he didn’t vote for it."
Hamel, who served as the CEO of the Loring Development Authority (search), which transformed what was left of Loring Air Force Base after it closed in 1994, said he helped to bring more jobs to the area than when the base was open, mainly through diversified business growth. He said much of the problem with business development in Maine is not NAFTA, but stringent regulations and taxes that scare away new prospects time and again.
"The state of Maine has a very unhealthy business climate," Hamel said, adding that the transportation system in the northern region is rotten for commerce, and Michaud, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, has done little about it.
"He has not been able to effect change," he said.
Chris Harris, spokesman for the Maine Democratic Party, disagrees.
"He secured $45 million for the 2nd District," Harris said. "The last time there was transportation funding like that allocated, it was for the entire state. That’s huge."
Harris describes Michaud as a workaholic who has taken seriously his duties by traversing the district — it’s the largest area-wise east of the Mississippi — and solidifying his support. "When people realize they have a congressman working that hard for them, they are going to respect him."
In 2002, Michaud won his seat over Republican Kevin Raye, 52 percent to 48 percent. Republicans say the Democrats brought in big labor to work the phones and beat the street on Michaud’s behalf, putting him ahead in the 11th hour.
"It’s a competitive district," said Dwayne Bickford, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, whose members say they believe they have a solid candidate in Hamel.
Though Michaud’s pro-life and pro-gun rights positions helped him win over this more conservative electorate two years ago, Republicans say they are going to emphasize his votes against tax cuts and his cozy relationship with the unions.
And his vote on the drug issue will definitely be used against him too, said Bickford. "Maine voters are an intelligent bunch, and I think they will see right through the rhetoric and recognize that Senators (Olympia) Snowe and (Susan) Collins voted for this and their congressmen didn’t."
"The simple fact is he voted against something the voters are looking forward to," he said.
Harris said it "won’t be easy to tag him," because seniors know Michaud "has been working on several fronts trying to get prescription drugs for seniors and for veterans, and he can point to a list of bills he’s sponsored or co-sponsored that shows he means it."