Vulnerable House Democrats call for sweeping drug pricing reforms in spending plan

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More than a dozen of the House’s most vulnerable Democrats are urging their leadership to include a major set of drug pricing reforms in their party’s upcoming multitrillion-dollar spending plan, a move that could help pay for the proposal.

In a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the 15 battleground-district House Democrats said the spending package should include a sweeping measure that would empower Medicare to negotiate drug prices and ultimately help slash costs across the health system. The same measure could also offset hundreds of billions of dollars of the $3.5 trillion total price tag.

“Empowering Medicare in this way and making these negotiated prices available to the private sector will bring down the cost of prescription drugs not just for seniors, but also for individuals and families across America,” the group, led by Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), wrote in a letter obtained by POLITICO.

But that plan, which was passed by the House two years ago, has faced new resistance in this Congress even as its prospects of becoming law grow more real. A separate group of 10 Democratic centrists has already warned Pelosi and her leadership team that they wouldn’t support the drug price negotiation component if it was tacked onto the party’s broader spending plan. Instead, that group — many of whom have a large pharmaceutical industry presence in their districts — have pushed for more incremental changes that can win GOP support.

Top Democrats are still looking to include some form of drug price reform in their budget resolution, which would help bankroll other health priorities like subsidizing Obamacare plans and expanding Medicare benefits, a senior Senate aide confirmed Wednesday. But exactly what the party will be able to pass remains unclear. Democrats face not only thin margins, but also a fierce lobbying push against the proposals by Big Pharma.

Pelosi has vowed to push for the more sweeping drug pricing bill known as H.R. 3, which would empower Medicare to bargain down the price of hundreds of drugs while applying those prices to other public and private insurance plans.

That provision would save roughly $456 billion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office — a figure cited by the House Democrats eager to include it in the spending plan.

“We can and must use these savings to reinvest in our health care system,” the letter reads.

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), meanwhile, is working on his own drug pricing plan, which aims to add some form of government negotiation to the bipartisan bill he crafted with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in the last Congress. But several moderate Democrats in both chambers remain opposed, enough to threaten the measures’ passage given the party’s narrow margins.

Wyden told POLITICO that he’s spending “a significant chunk of [his] waking hours … shuttling back and forth” between progressives and moderates trying to hammer out a deal. One sticking point has been the exact mechanism to lower drug costs, and Wyden confirmed that some in the caucus have balked at pegging prices to what other countries pay for the same medications.

“Suffice it to say, a lot of members have concerns about that and we’re trying to find common ground,” he said.

Alice Miranda Ollstein contributed to this report.

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