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Newsweek's Jonathan Alter and Liz Edwards Square Off On Health Care Debate

03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At a John Edwards event earlier this afternoon in Bedford, NH, we happened upon a very interesting conversation taking place between Elizabeth Edwards and Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter.

First a bit of background: A few weeks ago, Alter wrote a piece in Newsweek commenting on the debate about our nation's health care crisis. Specifically, he discussed the battle taking place between Edwards and Obama on exactly how they would negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies. Edwards, campaigning with a fierce populist tone, believes that drug companies must be excluded from any discussion on health care reform, while Obama says he would invite all of the key stakeholders to the table.

Alter made his case to Elizabeth following her husband's speech. He believes that while Edwards does make a convincing political argument, he must dial-back his tone a bit, especially given that Elizabeth, who is being treated for cancer, wouldn't have the drugs necessary without the research, development and production of medicine from these companies. Take a listen to this podcast of the conversation. (Rough transcript below)

Following the conversation between Elizabeth Edwards and Jonathan Alter, we pulled him aside and asked him to elaborate on their conversation and on the article that he wrote defending Obama. Alter also weighs in on Edwards' recent comments where he says that he will stay in the race until the convention. Here's the video.

RUSH AUDIO TRANSCRIPT (5:04)

JONATHAN ALTER
Let me ask you something about drug companies. Do you feel that your husbands attack on drug companies is perhaps a bit broad considering drug companies are trying to save your life my life a lot of other peoples lives.

ELIZABETH EDWARDS
No there are good companies and bad companies. But the fact that, understand that in this country we pay the highest price for drugs. They negotiate, they lobby so that the prescription drug bill, we would pay suggested retail. You know, I'm a bargain shopper I never pay suggested retail if I can avoid it. And certainly if I was the biggest buyer in the entire world I would expect to get a better deal than that. But they negotiated for that. Why? So they could keep their profits up. And they sell it for less across the border here and they sell it for less all around the world. This country, our consumers are subsidizing the rest of the world. They're making most of their profits right here. If they spread that around in a larger way and other industrialized countries you know if they were willing to take their profit more evenly. But they take it here. And why? Because here they can buy government influence so they don't have to pay for the consequences of that behavior. And that's what John's complaining about. Not that drugs are bad. I mean, the work they do in research is great. Although sometimes the government does, there's an old bill where the government participates in the research funding for some of these drugs they're supposed to get some of the profit. That doesn't actually happen. There are lots of little ways in which I can complain about them but golly for someone who depends on the pharmaceutical industry for her very life I'm certainly not in a position to complain about what they do. I just complain that, there was a time, now the oil industry is the most profitable I think. But for a very long time, the pharmaceutical industry was the most profitable sector in all of American industry.

ALTER

But he says you don't want to sit down and talk to them, doesn't that suggest that they're evil or some kind of boogeyman that everyone should not like?

EDWARDS

No no, it just suggest that in terms of what our policy should be about whether or not we open the borders and allow reimportation. The word reimportation being all you really need to know about this, it will allow the reimportation of drugs or that we negotiate the best possible price, what is their interest in being part of that conversation? We should be able to. Just like the Veterans Administration negotiates the best possible price so why should Medicare be negotiating the best possible price? And why would we be asking the pharmaceutical companies if it's ok with them if we negotiate the best possible price? Then we negotiate the price so we are talking to them then.

ALTER

I'm not asking about the substance here. I think everyone whose looked at it can agree there are serious price gouging and other problems with it. If you're talking about solutions, in the same way that a lot of cases are settled before trial after conversations.

EDWARDS

I see where you're going with this Jonathan.

ALTER
And your husband's settled many cases. Why not bring them in and then on television call them out and say why does a pill cost $150 in the United States and 2 cents in other countries? And then if they're embarrassed on television then you have all the more political persuasion. But if you just say we're not even going to bring you in to call you out then you can't educate the public on these issues.

EDWARDS
Well you don't be disingenuous for the purpose of creating theater about this.

ALTER
Well why not some theater?

EDWARDS
And perhaps there will come a time when that might be advantageous. Think about what happened with what the Democrats like to call hillary care, but the universal health care plan in 1993. The health insurance industry was actually apart of that discussion. They sat at the table with her, did that discussion and then walked out the door and undermined her. They did everything they could to undermine the policy they sat down to draft. So we just need to keep that in mind as we're trying to make a determination about how involved they are in the process. Are they completely excluded from the process, absolutely not. But do we decide what we want by asking them what they'll give us. My example of this is pretty personal to me having grown up in the time that I did. You know, Rosa Parks didn't negotiate about where she was going to sit on the bus. She said I can sit in the 2nd row if I want.

Jonathan Alter and Elizbeth Edwards Talk Healthcare Reform Photo by Joshua Skaroff