Democratic lawmakers see path for advancing drug price reforms

Politico Pro

May 3, 2021 4:34 am

President Joe Biden wants to keep drug pricing separate from his new sweeping economic package. But some key Democratic lawmakers said they heard another message in his address to Congress on Wednesday night.

Senior Democratic leaders on health care are taking Biden’s endorsement of government drug price negotiations as a green light to try to tack on pricing reforms to the administration’s $1.8 trillion plan — stoking fresh jitters among some in the pharmaceutical industry.

“In the speech, with respect to pharmaceuticals, he said, ‘Look, we’ve been talking about this for a long time. I’m going to give the Congress space to move,’” said Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who told POLITICO he’s spoken with Democratic and Republican colleagues about adding drug price legislation to the newest Biden package, known as the American Families Plan. “We’re going to look at every possible vehicle, starting today.”

House Democrats on Thursday announced plans to hold multiple hearings on their drug pricing negotiation bill, H.R. 3 (117), that they reintroduced ahead of Biden’s speech. While Senate Democrats have been more cautious on drug pricing, the effort has united House progressives and moderates. Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) called H.R. 3 one of his “top priorities” as his committee begins translating Biden’s policy outline into legislative text, and the 100-member Progressive Caucus has fully backed the measure.

But Democratic lawmakers have little time to forge consensus on a drug pricing overhaul that will draw fierce industry resistance, which could help explain why Biden kept it out of the new package bolstering the country’s safety net. There is a wide gulf between the most prominent House and Senate drug pricing plans, which could make it difficult for Democratic leaders to win support from all of their members.

Wyden and many other Democrats had spent weeks fruitlessly lobbying Biden to include drug price reform in the package. But on health care,Biden’s plan only called for immediately making permanent the subsidies for private Obamacare plans Congress temporarily approved in March’s Covid relief package.

Still, numerous pharmaceutical industry sources said Biden’s speech was more forceful on drug pricing than they had expected. His reference to the higher costs Americans pay for drugs compared to people in other countries was reminiscent of former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric attacking drugmakers. Biden also suggested that Medicare-negotiated prices be extended to commercial health plans, reviving support for a policy he endorsed in a “unity” document his campaign wrote with progressives last year.

“The president endorsed, in a prime-time address to Congress, a policy proposal we and many others have long opposed because it could lead to less patient access and fewer new cures and treatments,” said PhRMA spokesperson Brian Newell.

Democratic leaders in Congress offered few hints on their strategy, and there’s still some disagreement within the party about how to invest the huge savings that drug pricing legislation would generate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose top health care priority was the extension of Obamacare subsidies, demurred Thursday when asked if she would push for drug price negotiation to be added to the American Families Plan.

“What is in one bill or another is not really important,” she said. “There is big interest in our caucus, and in the committees of jurisdiction, as well among the leadership that we want to see a path to that.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has yet to weigh in. And Senate HELP Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she hasn’t spoken with other leaders about adding drug price reform to the new package, though she’s “exploring every avenue” to do so.

Wyden is pushing Democrats to consider the House drug pricing bill, as well as his own bipartisan legislation that would penalize drugmakers who raise prices faster than inflation and also make them pick up a portion of some seniors’ pharmaceutical costs. Wyden’s bill is seen as a possible compromise, though progressives argue it doesn’t go far enough and some moderates aren’t sold on the idea. Still, it has the appeal of providing about $100 billion in savings that could offset spending elsewhere in the bill — or provide another revenue source if Democrats want to dial back tax increases.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), seen as a potential pharma ally given that his state is a major base for the industry, stressed on Thursday that drug companies shouldn’t be used to fund other priorities.

The proposal is also unlikely to gain muchRepublican support. The top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Mike Crapo of Idaho, voted against the Wyden bill in the previous Congress, and told POLITICO on Thursday he would continue to oppose it.

“I’ve never supported government price fixing in any industry and I don’t think that the government price fixing will work here either,” Crapo said. “I think it’ll be a failed solution.”

Many Democrats see the infrastructure package as their last chance to push through their boldest legislative ideas this year. A failure to fulfill campaign promises to lower health care costs could hurt the party’s efforts to keep their slim House and Senate majorities in the 2022 midterms, Wyden and other Democrats have warned.

But if drug pricing can’t hitch a ride on infrastructure, Democrats are likely to keep pushing the issue. Biden on Wednesday called for getting health care changes done “this year,” though the timeline remains uncertain with a tight legislative calendar and several competing priorities.

“It’s not a done deal that it doesn’t get attached to infrastructure at the end of the day, but if they don’t, they’ll want to take another shot,” said Joe Grogan, a top Trump administration policy aide who tried and failed to negotiate a drug pricing compromise with Pelosi in the last Congress. “I don’t think it’s over by the summer — I think it continues to bubble through the end of the year.”