House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday attempted to angle the political debate away from impeachment with the rollout of a plan to lower prescription drug prices, incorporating ideas President Trump has endorsed to give the legislation a chance of actually becoming law.
Under the plan, the Department of Health and Human Services would negotiate down the prices of insulin and up to 250 expensive drugs, aligning their costs with what other countries pay.
It’s an idea that evokes Mr. Trump’s push for an international pricing index to nudge down the cost of some drugs under Medicare. The Democrats’ bill goes further, negotiating a wider array of drugs and extending the discounted prices to other purchasers, including employer health plans.
Companies that refuse to negotiate would be slapped with penalties equal to 65% of gross sales of the drug in question.
Mrs. Pelosi, who played a key role in writing the bill with committee chairmen, said the American people want results.
“The issue of the cost of prescription drugs is one subject that can make grown men cry,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “We don’t want a political issue at the polls, we want a solution in the Congress, and we want it now.”
Mr. Trump applauded the effort, though House Republicans panned the bill as a form of government overreach that boxes out their ideas, effectively leaving it to Mrs. Pelosi to lobby Mr. Trump and heap pressure on the GOP-led Senate, which is pursuing its own bills.
“We do hope to have White House buy-in,” Mrs. Pelosi said, noting it’s the best way to force a Senate vote.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, however, said it has “absolutely no chance — zero, zip, nada — no chance of passing the Senate or becoming law.”
The Senate is working on a bill that, like the Pelosi plan, would install inflation caps on pharmaceutical prices and cap seniors’ out-of-pocket costs. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley is leading the effort.
Mr. Trump late Thursday said he just wants to see progress.
“I like Sen. Grassley’s drug pricing bill very much, and it’s great to see Speaker Pelosi’s bill today. Let’s get it done in a bipartisan way!” he tweeted.
Mrs. Pelosi issued at least one red line, however — she will not drop the part of her bill that allows for government negotiation.
“No — absolutely, positively not,” Mrs. Pelosi said.
Her plan calls for HHS to negotiate the price of no fewer than 25 drugs each year — 250 is the ceiling — though some liberals say the minimum should be higher.
Mr. Trump signaled support for using government authority to negotiate prices during the 2016 campaign, but backed off as president.
He has, however, pushed to set the cost of some Medicare-covered drugs at levels closer to other countries, saying foreigners are freeloading on Americans.
Lowering the cost of prescription drugs is a top priority for voters, edging out protections for preexisting conditions and lowering the cost of medical services in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll on health care priorities for Congress.
“If Trump wants a policy win before the election, this issue is one where he can get something done,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies for the Brookings Institution.
Health care, generally, was a winner for Democrats during the 2018 midterm elections, so House leadership is steering the conversation in that direction even as liberal members of the restive caucus cry for impeachment.
Mrs. Pelosi has urged a methodical approach, hoping to keep the focus on the Democrats’ policy agenda and insulate centrist members who swiped seats in 2018 and could be punished for a hasty impeachment drive.
“We are legislating, investigating and litigating, and I trust the work of the committees,” Mrs. Pelosi said.
Mr. West said it’s an obvious calculus for leadership.
Drug pricing is “a bread-and-butter issue to which everyone can relate,” he said. “That subject helped Democrats win back the House in 2018 and it has great potential for helping the party in 2020. There is much greater support for pricing rules among the general public than presidential impeachment.”
The House Energy and Commerce Committee scheduled a hearing on the Pelosi bill for next week, putting it on pace for passage before the end of the year.
Every Republican on the committee rejected the bill Thursday, saying it bypassed their input and other plans in the pipeline.
“It does not have to be this way. There are bipartisan solutions to bring down prices for patients and create real transparency and accountability for this system,” the Republicans, led by Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, said.
The pharmaceutical lobby blasted the plan, saying it would upend Medicare’s drug benefit for seniors and undo America’s market-based system.
“It would fundamentally restructure how patients access medicines by giving the federal government unprecedented, sweeping authority to set medicine prices in public and private markets while importing price controls from other countries that restrict access to innovative medicines,” said Stephen J. Ubl, president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
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