The Democratic Party’s effort to fight rising drug prices that has drawn largely grassroots support is struggling to gain much traction.
A renewed push by President Donald Trump to make Medicare a major buyer of prescription drugs is widely seen as a disappointment by progressives, who had worried they could be undermined by GOP opposition. Democrats’ attempts to directly negotiate lower prices by promising Medicare rebates, instead, appear in even more jeopardy than initially feared, as a wide range of critics cite concerns that any agreement could lead to less innovation and higher prices for seniors.
“That legislation is being revised right now,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), after a Tuesday meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and other administration officials that discussed Medicare drug prices. “I’m confident that we’re going to be working together to make sure Medicare is competitive in those negotiations.”
Moran’s backing, and that of various insurers, pharmaceutical companies and hospital groups, has made any deal a difficult prospect. As with the negotiations over Trump’s proposal last year, it’s also unclear how hard he’d fight the legislation should it arise in the next Congress, which begins in January.
Trump, meanwhile, is expected to force down the steep hike drugmakers proposed to Medicare’s negotiating team in his private talks with pharmaceutical CEOs at the White House on Tuesday.
Democrats began raising the issue again last summer, as Trump called for a higher “welfare” payment to drug companies for discounts, while House Democrats introduced a measure to limit insurance’s ability to cover certain drugs. As the campaign season began, Democratic candidates began highlighting their support for legislation to limit drug price increases.
In its early days, Democrats’ campaign to cut drug prices had outpaced their effort to raise federal wages, which had been the focus of their populist message as Democrats sought to make healthcare a defining issue in their quest to reclaim power from Trump’s Republicans.
In August, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched a recruitment effort for Democrats running for the Senate, and set up a website to help vulnerable Democrats get re-elected. A new Congressional Progressive Caucus had launched a similar “Money Shot” effort to gauge support for their initiative.
The effort gained steam last month when Trump came out in support of Medicare rebates, sending shares of drugmakers and insurers lower.
But the campaign has since stalled, with no major results to date.
For their part, Republicans have continued to portray Democrats as out of touch with constituents suffering as a result of rising drug prices. Rep. John Faso (R-N.Y.), for example, tried on Tuesday to cast a Medicare rebate bill as a backroom deal made by Pelosi’s Democrats.
But plenty of Republicans have also agreed with their conservative critics that there are better ways to lower prices.
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners, which represents state regulators across the country, has produced a report arguing that simply lowering prices is unlikely to provide sufficient relief for Medicare patients. Its top legislative priority has been to expand voluntary FDA drug-safety registries, which it sees as an effective solution, while giving regulators and regulators more power to punish companies when they violate safety rules.
Medicare’s own consumer assistance program, Part D, which gives discounts to low-income patients, has also struggled with hurdles due to lack of funding and challenges providing patients with guidance to understand rebates.
“Medicare doesn’t operate as a big ponzi scheme,” said Jennifer Kester, president of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, which represents agencies that help individuals and families navigate the Medicare system. “We have very limited coverage today.”
So far, only Democrats have pushed drug bills in Congress. Moran, along with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), introduced a Medicare Advantage bill in August. There’s also bipartisan support in the House for bills to give preferential status to low-income patients seeking their drugs outside Medicare for the first time, which the AMA supports, and for Medicare to negotiate with drugmakers directly to lower drug prices.
Trump has yet to back a prescription drug bill at all. Republicans’ unified opposition to Democrats has deterred them from pursuing specifics on lowering prices or expanding Medicare’s rebate powers, lobbyists say.
“This is an area that is ripe for reform,” Kester said. “But it’s not in our wheelhouse, at least until Democrats lay out specific legislation.”