Congress moves to lower high prescription drug prices

While the government shutdown rightly dominates the headlines, there is activity on Capitol Hill to address another urgent issue: rising prescription drug prices.  At the beginning of the year, the Wall Street Journal reported that more than three dozen pharmaceutical companies hiked the prices of hundreds of medicines, despite the Trump administration’s pleas that they be lowered.  Rising drug prices continue to pummel the pocketbooks of seniors living on fixed incomes.  Too many older Americans are still having to choose between groceries and medicine – or cutting pills in half.

But the tide may be turning.  Champions of seniors are assuming powerful committee chairmanships in the House of Representatives.  Momentum is building for legislation – some of it solidly bipartisan – that would help bring prescription drug prices under control.  In other words, the new Congress may begin to stand up to Big Pharma:

Hope is strong among health-care advocates and lawmakers that 2019 could be the year Congress and the executive branch finally make significant moves against the powerful prescription drug industry, after long acknowledging a need for action but doing little about it. – Washington Post, 1/7/19

Members of the new 116th Congress are introducing bills to bring seniors some relief at the pharmacy counter.  On Thursday, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) unveiled legislation that would, among other things, direct the Medicare program to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.  (The U.S. Veterans Administration has been doing it for years.)  Congressional Democrats estimate that these negotiations would save Medicare beneficiaries at least $15 billion a year.

On the House side, Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) will re-introduce similar legislation.  (With the Democratic takeover of the House, Doggett is expected to become chairman of the influential House Ways and Means health subcommittee.)  His bill would allow the Secretary of Health & Human Services to directly negotiate prices for prescription drugs.  If negotiations were to fail, Doggett’s bill would empower the HHS Secretary to issue a competitive license allowing other manufacturers to produce the drug for Medicare.

The Hill reports that the new House leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) support allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.

Momentum also appears to be gathering for legislation affecting generic drugs.  Big pharmaceutical companies have long engaged in anti-competitive behavior to keep lower cost generic drugs off the market.  The bipartisan CREATES Act would make it harder for brand name drug-makers to impede cheaper generic competition.  According to The Hill, the CREATES Act enjoys the support of many Republicans, including Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the new chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

While Senator Grassley is on the wrong side of the Medicare price negotiation issue, he has joined forces with Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) on the Preserve Access to Affordable Generics Act.  The bill would prohibit “pay-for-delay” deals where pharmaceutical companies pay producers of generic drugs to delay rolling out those medications.

On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Trump (who said in 2017 that drug companies were “getting away with murder”) has proposed some administrative measures to lower drug prices.  Unfortunately, most of these have been weak tea – and seemingly designed not to offend Big Pharma.  Instead of waiting to see if the Trump administration will do more than nibble around the edges of the problem, many in the new Congress appear ready to try to alleviate the pain of soaring prescription drug prices.