Joe Biden throws support behind bold reforms to slash drug prices

Joe Biden throws support behind bold reforms to slash drug prices
President Joe Biden in press conference

Congressional Democrats on Thursday faced calls to resist pharmaceutical industry lobbying and take action to lower sky-high prescription drug costs after President Joe Biden voiced support for several major reforms, including a popular proposal to allow Medicare to directly negotiate prices.

In a speech from the East Room of the White House Thursday afternoon, Biden lamented the fact that the United States pays around two times more for prescription drugs than other rich nations and urged Congress to confront the long-standing crisis through legislation.

On top of allowing Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies over the prices of "a subset of expensive drugs" that have no competitors, Biden said lawmakers should impose a cap on the amount of money Medicare beneficiaries have to pay out of pocket for prescription medicines each year.

In 2019, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, around 1.5 million Medicare Part D beneficiaries had out-of-pocket prescription drug spending above the catastrophic coverage threshold, which is currently set at $6,550.

The president also demanded that Congress pass legislation forcing drug companies to pay a penalty if they raise prices faster than inflation.

"This isn't a partisan issue," Biden said. "Alzheimer's, diabetes, and cancer don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican."

Alex Lawson, executive director of the progressive advocacy group Social Security Works, said in a statement Thursday that Biden's proposed slate of reforms amounts to "a mandate" for Congress "to lower drug prices for everyone in America." Social Security Works, along with other consumer advocacy organizations, is also calling on Biden to use his executive authority to slash drug costs.

"Now, Democrats need to stand united and pass drug pricing reform into law as part of the Build Back Better package," Lawson added, referring to the sweeping legislative agenda that Democrats are working to pass using the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process.

"Any Democrat who tries to block or water down drug pricing reform is betraying President Biden and his agenda," said Lawson. "Worse, they are betraying the American people."

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)—chair of the Senate Finance Committee and author of a widely praised document outlining necessary steps to lower drug costs—applauded Biden's proposal as an important step toward ending the pharmaceutical industry's price-gouging.

"American families have been getting mugged at the pharmacy counter while Medicare has one hand tied behind its back," Wyden tweeted Thursday. "I'm working with Senate Democrats to make Medicare negotiation a reality for millions of families that need relief from high drug prices."

Recent polling shows that repealing the federal provision barring Medicare from negotiating prices with drugmakers is highly popular among U.S. voters across party lines. A survey released last week by the Alliance for Retired Americans showed that 87% of voters over the age of 65—including 89% of Democrats, 87% of Republicans, and 81% of Independents—support the proposal.

But pharmaceutical companies, concerned that any effort to constrain out-of-control drug costs would cut into their profits, are adamantly opposed to letting Medicare negotiate prices—and the industry is already mobilizing as congressional Democrats push to include the proposed reform in their emerging reconciliation package.

PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry's top lobbying group, has been running highly deceptive television ads in recent days denouncing the Medicare negotiation plan as an effort to give the federal government control over which medicines seniors can and can't access.

The powerful industry's public and behind-closed-doors lobbying push is likely to grow more aggressive as congressional Democrats' reconciliation package begins to take shape.

On Wednesday, the Senate approved a $3.5 trillion budget resolution setting the boundaries for the package, and the House is expected to take up and pass the resolution later this month. Once both chambers have passed an identical resolution, congressional committees will begin crafting legislative text.

"We will save taxpayers hundreds of billions by requiring that Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry and we will use those savings to expand Medicare by covering the dental care, hearing aids, and eyeglasses that seniors desperately need," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chief architect of the budget resolution, said in a statement earlier this week.

But it's far from certain that a Medicare negotiation provision will survive the process of developing the final reconciliation bill, particularly given that a number of Big Pharma-backed House Democrats—including Reps. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) and Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)—have recently voiced skepticism about the proposal.

With Republicans unanimously opposed to the reconciliation package, Democrats can afford just a handful of defections in the House and none in the Senate.

Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told HuffPost on Thursday that "it's not yet clear how the Democratic leadership will corral the necessary votes for a drug pricing plan, but there's no sign they're backing off."

"An epic battle with the pharmaceutical industry is coming," said Levitt.

In a series of tweets responding to Biden's prescription drug agenda, Levitt wrote that while the president's "proposal doesn't break new policy ground," it "is significant in that he is now using his political capital to push for congressional action at a pivotal moment in the debate."

"Eighty-eight percent of the public supports giving the government the authority to negotiate drug prices," Levitt noted. "It's pretty tough to find anything that popular in these divisive times."

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