By Bill McRae/for Last Best News

A public servant’s worth is directly proportional to his willingness to seek advice from his constituents.

On this score, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester earns high marks for his visit to Billings on a frigid Saturday morning to learn about how repeal of the Affordable Care Act would affect Montanans. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke could take a lesson from Tester.

Bill McRae
Bill McRae

But here’s the thing: Tester needs to listen more carefully to the concerns Montanans have over his “no” vote on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ budget reconciliation amendment to permit the importing of safe and affordable prescription drugs.

Here’s what I asked him at the meeting:

“Sen. Tester, I applaud your vote no on the Senate resolution to take up ACA reform through budget reconciliation. I trust that your vote reflects your awareness that ending the ACA will have devastating effects on millions of Americans. However, I condemn your no vote on Sen. Sanders’ amendment to allow Americans to purchase American made drugs from Canada and other sources.

“Your vote with 12 other Democrats to defeat the amendment keeps the marketplace non-competitive and the price of drugs beyond reach for many Montanans. Sen. Corey Booker maintains that his NO vote concerns the safety of imported drugs, but he has received $267,338 in Big Pharma donations in the past six years, and you have received $77,250. Do you have a comment?”

On his Facebook feed later on Saturday, Tester replied:

“Thank you for reaching out with your comments about my vote this week and the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs. President-elect Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders are right that we have to get them under control. I support importing safe prescription drugs and I’ve voted numerous times to allow it. But the amendment I voted on this week, which wouldn’t have even changed the law, wasn’t the right solution. We cannot open the door to a flood of counterfeit medicine that puts our safety and health at risk, and we need to keep working on real ways to bring costs down.”

When folks read the more than 300 responses to Tester’s Facebook post, they are bound to come away with one conclusion, that Tester needs to clean his boots because he has stepped into it big time. Folks don’t like the fact that he receives contributions from Big Pharma. They often claim that his vote on the Sanders’ amendment was bought and paid for by drug manufacturers who care only for their bottom line.

That claim is unfair.

I phrased my question as I did because I hoped Tester would face the Big Pharma question head on. Sen. Booker, who also voted against the Sanders’ amendment, has received 3.5 times  more than Tester from Big Pharma.  Tester’s average over those years is around $12,000.

I wish he had said something about that average. Or said that, compared to the $1,400,443 he has received from lawyers and lawyer groups–his biggest donors–his Big Pharma numbers are paltry. There is some truth to his answer at the meeting, when he said that until there is meaningful campaign finance reform, candidates have to accept money from many sources. The Copper Kings used to buy Montana senators outright, but I don’t see in these numbers that Big Pharma has taken their place with Sen. Tester.

But what about the issue of drug safety? According to the Congressional Record, Sanders’ amendment proposes that the budget permit “the importation of safe and affordable prescription drugs by American pharmacists, wholesalers, and individuals with a valid prescription from a provider licensed to practice in the United States.”

Tester is right to be concerned about the safety of prescription drugs, but it’s hard to see how the language of the amendment encourages the importation of counterfeit or unsafe drugs. Tester knows that a Senate budget resolution is just that, a resolution and not new legislation. Had the amendment passed, there would have been opportunity down the road to refine it legislatively.

Tester implies that a yes vote on Sanders’ amendment would have been an empty gesture since the amendment was bound to be defeated. But the vote was not empty to 13 Republicans who voted yes on the amendment. One was Ted Cruz, who raked in almost $100,000 in Big Pharma contributions in 2016 alone. I’m almost persuaded that Cruz’s yes vote was good enough reason to vote no.

Almost isn’t good enough, though.

Votes are often symbolic and wasted, if the measure is a legislative success.  It would have cost Tester very little–even in terms of lost campaign contributions–to have voted with Sanders.  Instead, he has lost considerable support back home, support he deserves for condemning Big Pharma “scalping” and “taking advantage of the marketplace.”

So, while I don’t count myself among his erstwhile supporters, I am also not giving him a free pass here. Tester needs to address this issue head on. He needs to stop playing the safe political game.

The easiest thing to do is say no. That’s what he is doing. Fine, say no to unsafe drugs and to price gouging. But what will you do, Senator, to address the problem of skyrocketing drug prices? Time to tell us what you want, not what you don’t.

Born and raised in Billings, Bill McRae graduated from Senior High, went to UM, and left Montana in 1972 to be a college and university professor of English in the Midwest, South and internationally. He came back home in 2012, in retirement to fish the Boulder River, explore the Beartooths in his Jeep, and read what 40 years of teaching never gave him time to do.