I never tire of saying that if he were still in the Senate today, Joe Biden would be Joe Manchin-- which is what he was since 1973. But he's a Democratic president and he has to at least appear to be for working families. So yesterday he climbed up on his version of a bully pulpit and implored Congress to lower the cost of prescription drugs.
Jonathan Weisman reminded NY Times readers that Trump campaigned on lowering drug prices but once the Big PhRMA lobbyists got in with him, he never moved on it. Biden wants it included in Bernie's $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill. So do all Democrats-- except Manchin and Sinema, either of whom has the power to stop it in its tracks.
"Biden," wrote Weisman, "said he wanted at least three measures included in the $3.5 trillion social policy bill that Democrats hope to pass using budget rules that would protect it from a Republican filibuster. He wants Medicare to be granted the power to negotiate lower drug prices, pharmaceutical companies to face penalties if they raise prices faster than inflation, and a new cap on how much Medicare recipients have to spend on medications.
“There aren’t a lot of things that almost every American could agree on,” the president said at the White House. “But I think it is safe to say that all of us, whatever our background or our age and where we live, could agree that prescription drug prices are outrageously expensive in America.”
The president was pushing on an open door. Congressional Democrats have already said they want to include all three measures in the so-called reconciliation bill that House and Senate committees hope to assemble.
Democrats have been pushing for most of the measures for years, against fierce opposition from the powerful pharmaceutical industry and Republican leaders, who explicitly banned price negotiations when they passed a prescription drug benefit for Medicare in 2003.
When Trump broke with Republican orthodoxy in 2016, railing against the drug lobby and vowing to let Medicare use its buying power to drive for bargains, Democrats worked with Chuck Grassley (R-IA) on a bipartisan drug pricing bill but Trump had already moved on and lost interest-- probably bribed by the pharmaceutical industry -- and McConnell never allowed it to move beyond "a discussion." Weisman remind his readers that "The pharmaceutical industry remains a potent force in Washington, newly fortified by the gratitude of voters for its rapid development of coronavirus vaccines. The president nodded to that when he began his remarks Thursday 'by acknowledging the work that many pharmaceutical companies are doing; look no further than the vaccines they’re manufacturing and delivering that are helping us beat this pandemic and save lives.' The industry’s trade association, PhRMA, called Mr. Biden’s proposals a 'misguided' effort to shift money from one part of the government to spend it elsewhere. 'The policies the president outlined today would undermine access to lifesaving medicines,' the lobby’s president and chief executive, Steve Ubl, said in a statement, adding, 'Many in Congress know that access to medicine is critical for millions of patients, and Medicare is not a piggy bank to be raided to fund other, unrelated government programs.'"
Because the Senate is evenly divided between Republican and Democratically-aligned lawmakers, a single defection on any one issue could force it to be rejected from the overall package. With a three-vote margin in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California does not have it much easier, and drug makers will pressure House members whose districts depend on their jobs and profits.
Trump’s past push will not provide any kind of political shield from Republican attacks. FreedomWorks, a conservative group that allied itself with the former president, immediately denounced "Biden’s latest call on Congress to impose socialist drug price controls."
Pushing the issue forward will be popular opinion-- lowering drug prices has long been a priority for voters-- and the need to find ways to pay for $3.5 trillion in spending on climate change, education expansion, family and medical leave, child care and elder care. Lower drug prices for Medicare alone could save the government billions of dollars, depending on how negotiations are structured.
But the Congressional Budget Office cautioned that negotiating power alone would have little impact. The negotiations would have to be tied to specific medications, and Medicare would have to be willing to drop a drug from its accepted coverage list if a company does not budge.
Biden said he wanted Congress to go as far as possible.
“Congress is currently debating a more narrow vision, letting Medicare negotiate some of the most expensive drugs, particularly from those companies that don’t face competition for that drug,” he said. “We’re going to provide the competition throughout Medicare.”
Biden has taken $8,390,215 from the pharmaceutical industry over time, more than anyone else in politics. But among current members of the House these are the dozen most in the pocket of Big PhRMA:
Anna Eshoo (D-CA)- $1,973,781
Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)- $1,840,634
Frank Pallone (D-NJ)- $1,698,339
Fred Upton (R-MI)- $1,696,880
Steny Hoyer (D-MD)- $1,198,463
Michael Burgess (R-TX)- $1,096,374
Kevin Brady (R-TX)- $1,093,983
Ron Kind (D-WI)- $1,035,342
Brett Guthrie (R-KY)- $1,032,227
Richard Neal (D-MA)- $1,008,421
Jim Clyburn (D-SC)- $948,119
Steve Scalise (R-LA)- $883,438
In the current cycle, PhRMA is leaning more towards the GOP. These are the dozen whores who have sucked up the most PhRMA money in the current cycle:
Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)- $446,334
Richard Hudson (R-NC)- $276,933
Steve Scalise (R-LA)- $273,427
Frank Pallone (D-NJ)- $256,925
Anna Eshoo (D-CA)- $248,350
Scott Peters (D-CA)- $229,973
Kevin Brady (R-TX)- $218,000
Brett Guthrie (R-KY)- $210,464
Richard Neal (D-MA)- $206,500
Buddy Carter (R-GA)- $185,200
Larry Bucshon (R-IN)- $184,253
Brad Schneider (D-IL)- $175,599
Steven Holden is running for the Central New York blue seat held by Republican John Katko. There is also a status quo Dem in the race, Fran Conole, a kind of Katko-lite. "People like John Katko just do not get what high drug prices can do to a family trying to get by," Holden told me last night. "John Katko’s primary donor is the pharmaceutical industry. My brother-in-law has an immune disorder, and if he did not have to volunteer in clinical trials, his medicine would have cost him almost $30K/month. If my sister-in-law, who is from Maddydale, NY, does not get her SSI for her MS, her annual medical costs would be over $250k. Fran Conole does not have a plan on how to address this problem, but I know how to turn swords into plowshares and fund Healthcare for All."
Former state Sen. Erica Smith is running to flip an open North Carolina red Senate seat blue. Making prescription drugs affordable is right smack in the center of her wheelhouse. Last night she told me she subscribes "to the belief that nobody should be too poor to live. For too long, pharmaceutical companies have bought politicians and paid for laws that allow them to play by their own rules and prioritize profit over people. That needs to end. The government should be negotiating the prices of these life-saving medications and we should be allowing importation from our neighbors on the northern border. I know too many people choosing between rent and their prescription drugs, between putting food on the table and, paying for the prescriptions they need. That is not a choice that any human being should be forced to make, especially not in the wealthiest country in the world. We are caught in a web of immorality that has been spun by politicians who can be bought, in a political system that is corrupt. I am unbought and unbossed. I answer to the people and I will ensure that every North Carolinian, and American, has the prescription drugs they need. This issue, like the moral movement that we're building, is about our collective humanity. Policy by policy, our movement is going to end the immorality of the existing systems of oppression that leave working people, people of all colors and creeds, struggling just to survive."
Jason Call is running for a House seat held by a status quo establishment New Dem, former dental lobbyist Rick Larsen. Jason said he appreciates that "Biden has prescription drugs on his mind and is making some moves to rein in the power of the industry. However, what I fail to understand is why any private company should be making money off the critical medical needs of the American people. Price gouging a la Martin Shkreli aside, there are some things that should be just made available at cost (or less) to those who need them. The pharmaceutical companies, as we know, abused their authority by serving kickbacks to doctors for over-prescribing opioids. There isn’t a fine large enough for that criminality that has been done by this industry. Furthermore they get a lot of subsidized research and development investment from the US taxpayers. My firm position is that we need to nationalize the pharmaceutical industry. Consider it a form of reparations to a public that has suffered needlessly for corporate greed. There’s not a chance that former dental lobbyist [Rick Larsen], corporate Dem incumbent in WA-02, is going to support measures to impact the profits of his donors. One of his first votes in office was to vote against a Bernie Sanders amendment in 2001 that would have ended the monopoly big Pharma has on the reimportation of prescription drugs to the U.S.!
Derek Marshall in the progressive Democrat running for the seat to represent the huge California district held by conservative Republican Jay Obernolte. "I applaud the Biden administration’s calls to control drug pricing," Marshall told me yesterday. "It certainly is a step in the right direction-- but for the sake of the families of CA-08 we must go further. By enacting Medicare for All we can ensure everyone gets the care they need while also reigning in the greed of the prescription drug companies who profit off the pain and suffering of our families. While my opponent continues his lock step support of these titans of greed, I will do everything in my power to pass Medicare for All, a bill that includes capping drugs costs and opening up prescription patents becomes the law of the land-- It’s the only way Americans can get the care they need, when they need it, without having to worry about going bankrupt."