Opinion: Meaningful drug pricing reforms are headed nowhere fast
President Biden is taking a page out of former President Trump’s drug pricing playbook: offer big promises around tough negotiations with drugmakers, but fail to offer a viable path for getting it done.
Warning signs that drug pricing would no longer be a priority for the president’s marquee legislation came over the past week from the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. To the chagrin of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and other Democrats, President Biden’s massive, $1.8 trillion social safety net plan to help American families, details of which were unveiled Wednesday morning, does not include a major push to curtail drug prices.
Although Biden is supposed to offer more specifics in his speech to Congress tonight, including a demand for legislation on price negotiations this year, standalone legislation on negotiations is not likely to make headway in the deadlocked Senate, especially if it needs 60 votes for passage.
Biden whiffed on an opportunity to spell out what he wants in writing.
“President Biden has a plan to build on the Affordable Care Act and lower prescription drug costs for everyone by letting Medicare negotiate prices,” the White House said Wednesday. That was the only mention of drug prices in the White House fact sheet on the safety net overhaul.
Senior Biden officials tried to downplay this gaping hole where Biden should explain what he wants on drug prices, telling reporters on a call on Tuesday evening that Biden “has been very, very clear that he remains fully committed to negotiations to reduce prescription drug prices — that, you will hear him reiterate as a very top priority and something he deems urgent.”
But the broader narrative is that drug pricing as a priority is slipping, and no one knows why exactly, considering the support from House and Senate Democrats and even some Republicans. Perhaps the pharmaceutical lobby has already gotten to Biden? Perhaps the Biden team doesn’t want to punish drugmakers after how quickly they were able to develop Covid vaccines?
Whatever the reason, those assurances from senior staffers mean very little as the House and Senate remain divided on how to pursue drug prices. House Democrats last week reintroduced their landmark (or dead in the water, depending on which party you listen to) drug pricing bill, HR 3, which passed along party lines in the House in December 2019 but was never considered by the Senate.
Attempts to revive that bill and others will begin in earnest next week at a House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing. But if drug pricing legislation is really going to make headway, the Senate will need to weigh in.
Some Senate Republicans have already raised red flags about government price negotiations (even as the US is the only country in the world to not negotiate) and focused their plans instead on lowering out-of-pocket costs.
How the legislation makes it across the finish line remains murky, but the need for such legislation is as clear as ever.
A new GAO analysis on Wednesday found that for 20 brand-name drugs in 2020, estimated US prices paid at the retail level by consumers and other payers (such as insurers) were more than two to four times higher than prices in Australia, Canada and France.