3 House Democrats under fire for blocking plan to lower drug prices

3 House Democrats under fire for blocking plan to lower drug prices
CBP photo by Glenn Fawcett

Committee Chair Rep. Kathleen Rice asks questions of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Commissioner Robert E. Perez during testimony before the Border Security, Facilitation, and Operations Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee in a hearing to review the Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Request for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Washington, D.C., May 9, 2019.

Update:

The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday failed to adopt Democrats' plan to let Medicare broadly negotiate prescription drug prices after three Democrats—Reps. Kathleen Rice of New York, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, and Scott Peters of California—voted no.

A spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) signaled in response to the vote that the Democratic leadership will still aim to include the Medicare negotiation proposal in the final budget reconciliation package.

Earlier:

Progressive advocacy groups on Wednesday sought to dial up the pressure on three House Democrats who are opposing a key element of their own party's plan to lower prescription drug prices, potentially imperiling one of the most popular components of the emerging reconciliation package.

Social Security Works, Public Citizen, and other organizations are working to drive calls to the congressional offices of Reps. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), and Scott Peters (D-Calif.), House Energy and Commerce Committee members who announced Tuesday that they are against allowing Medicare to broadly negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

The three Democrats' opposition to the plan—which is resoundingly favored by the U.S. public—left the narrowly divided committee deadlocked as it tried to advance its section of the party's sprawling budget reconciliation bill.

"There is no good reason, none, for any member of Congress to block pricing reform," Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, said in a statement. "There is especially no good reason for any Democrat, since voters elected Democrats specifically to deliver on promises to bring down medicine prices. There are, however, many very identifiable, bad reasons for members to side with Big Pharma and against their constituents."

"By overwhelming numbers, Americans demand that Congress take action on drug pricing. It's patently obvious why: 1-in-4 Americans ration their prescriptions because of too high prices and many others suffer to afford the meds they need," Weissman continued. "Reps. Scott Peters, Kurt Schrader, and Kathleen Rice... should stand down—and stand with the American people."

Schrader and Peters are both major beneficiaries of campaign donations from the pharmaceutical industry, which on Wednesday announced the launch of a seven-figure ad blitz against House Democrats' drug pricing plan—a key component of the party's effort to cut sky-high U.S. medicine costs and finance an expansion of Medicare.

An alternative proposal put forth by Schrader, Peters, Rice, and two other House Democrats would only allow the federal government to negotiate prices on a narrow subset of prescription drugs in Medicare Part B that currently have no competition.

As The American Prospect's David Dayen noted on Wednesday, "This preserves the patent monopolies that keep drug prices exorbitantly high in the United States, since there is no current check on costs."

"Restricting negotiation to off-patent drugs and restricting the inflation cap to Medicare just allows drug companies to keep excess profits," Dayen added. "It also reduces the amount of money available to offset spending in the bill."

There was little indication as of Wednesday afternoon that the trio of conservative Democrats intend to back down. Dayen emphasized that "the standoff does not mean that drug price reform is finished," pointing out that "the Budget Committee can always fit it back in with a 'manager's amendment'" if Energy and Commerce fails to approve the plan.

But such a maneuver would likely ensure that Schrader, Peters, and Rice oppose the final reconciliation package, leaving House Democrats without any more votes to spare.

Given the overwhelming popularity of Democrats' drug price negotiation plan in Rice's district, progressives have focused much of their pressure campaign on urging her to flip. Rice, who has received little campaign cash from Big Pharma relative to Schrader and Peters, was chosen for a spot on the House Energy and Commerce Committee over progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) last December.

Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, said in a statement Wednesday that "it is disgusting when politicians who supported Medicare negotiation in the past switch their votes in exchange for pharma cash."

"But we won't let a few bought and paid for politicians stop the overwhelming will of the people," Lawson added. "We are going to get Medicare negotiation into the Build Back Better package, we are going to pass it into law, and we are going to lower drug prices for everyone. Any politician standing in the way of lower drug prices is on a short path to losing their job."

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