WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats and progressives continued their push Thursday to pass legislation aimed at lowering the cost of prescription drugs as they announced the introduction of three separate bills on the issue.
“The people in our country pay by far the highest prices in the world for the prescription drugs they need,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at a Thursday morning press conference at the Capitol. “That has got to end; the legislation we’re supporting will do just that. It’s totally absurd that one in five people who get a prescription from their doctor are unable to fill that prescription because they can’t afford the price of the medicine.”
The bills announced by the group of mostly Democratic senators and representatives included:
“President Trump over and over has talked about the high cost of prescription drugs,” Sanders said. “He said he was going to stop pharmaceutical companies from getting away with murder. [Mr. President], if you’re serious about lowering prescription drug costs in this country, support our legislation and get your colleagues on board.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said that he had pleaded with his Republican colleagues to address this issue, and had also urged the president to act. “I went to the White House early in [his] first year; I gave President Trump the same [Medicare negotiation] bill we’re introducing today,” he said. “We asked for his endorsement … We asked him to do what he had already promised America he would do. He initially said he’d support the legislation … As a matter of fact, he told then-[Health and Human Services] Secretary [Tom] Price to make it happen. Since then we’ve had radio silence … There hasn’t been any progress since then, and it’s clear the problem is getting worse.”
Congress was not the only branch of government discussing drug prices this week. “The president and I will not stop until list prices of drugs come down,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday during an appearance on the Fox Business Channel’s “Varney & Co.” show. He was responding to a question about several drug companies that announced price increases effective at the beginning of this year. “This behavior has to stop; drug prices must come down, and we will roll out more regulatory and legislative proposals and work with Democrats and Republicans to get prices down.”
“It’s an absolutely silly system you have that the more you increase the price of your product, the more competitive you make it,” Azar continued. “The companies that have increased their prices on Jan. 1 all admitted they were doing so basically to funnel kickbacks in the form of rebates to PBMs [pharmacy benefit managers] to keep the ‘preferred’ status of their drugs on the formularies available to patients. Now, we have seen some good behavior — Amgen, Merck, Gilead, each have had products they’ve significantly reduced the list price [on]. We need to see more of this; we need other companies to follow; and we need bigger products to have those price decreases.”
In May 2018, the Trump administration unveiled its “blueprint” for lowering prescription drug prices, including a possible move to require drug companies to include list prices of drugs in their television ads. In October, the administration issued a proposed rule on the topic. Other parts of the blueprint, such as speeding up approvals of over-the-counter drugs and preventing brand-name companies from taking undue advantage of the patent system, have yet to be implemented.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) noted that some of the Democrats’ proposals have already been “scored” by the Congressional Budget Office and found to save money. The bill allowing drug reimportation, for example, “has been scored to save the American taxpayer over $6 billion over 10 years,” he said. “We’re not only allowing the ongoing pain and hurt to happen to American families … but also wasting taxpayer dollars by not using our collective power. This has to stop.”
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) noted that much of drugmakers’ profits — $139 billion — went toward stock buybacks, while a smaller amount — $80 billion — was spent on research and development (R&D), contrary to pharmaceutical companies’ assertions that they need to charge high prices to make up for all the money spent on research. “If they were putting all of their money into R&D, at least they’d have an argument,” he said.
Although the group of Democrats sounded optimistic about getting the bills passed, they face a large hurdle: a Republican-controlled Senate. “I have confidence that when the overwhelming majority of people are sick and tired of the greed of the pharmaceutical industry, when physicians all over the country are outraged that patients can’t afford their prescriptions … we will have action, and our Republican colleagues will respond to that outreach,” Sanders said. He said he had spoken with at least one Republican senator, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who was interested in addressing the issue.
The politics of the country is changing, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “Any [legislator] who goes home — and I go home every weekend — cannot appear in a public place without somebody saying, ‘What are you going to do about drug costs?’ … We’re here with serious proposals to deal with an issue that’s undeniable in its political force today, and the American people are going to hold the administration accountable.”