Politico

Biden touts drug pricing plan in push for social spending bill

President Joe Biden on Monday showcased his proposal to combat painfully high prescription drug costs in an effort to drum up support for his signature social spending blueprint in Congress.

Biden repeatedly underlined the issue as one of “personal dignity” for people struggling to afford necessary medication for themselves and their loved ones in the face of corporate excess.

“These price increases are about companies looking to maximize profits, and nobody is standing up for the patients,” he said in a speech at the White House. “Nobody has held the manufacturers accountable until now.”

He noted the extraordinary lengths some Americans go to afford drugs that cost considerably less in comparable nations, including rationing their supplies or choosing between paying for medicine or other life necessities.

“Shame on us as a nation if we can’t do better than this,” he said.


As he has in other recent public addresses, Biden pointed to the cost of insulin — a critical drug for millions of diabetics that has been around for decades — as one of the most glaring examples of the problem while acknowledging the issue reverberates broadly.

“Everyone has less money in their pockets because high drug costs make health insurance more expensive for everyone,” he said.

The president nudged members of his party in Congress, specifically the Senate, to push through his signature Build Back Better plan, which includes several measures designed to alleviate some of the burden on consumers.

Democrats’ ability to meaningfully impact drug prices, however, depends heavily on Congress passing the party’s $1.7 trillion social spending bill in the coming weeks. The package — which passed the House and is now awaiting consideration in a Senate distracted by a looming debt ceiling and the need to pass the National Defense Authorization Act — contains provisions that would give Medicare the power to bargain on the price of a handful of the most expensive drugs; penalize drugmakers who raise prices faster than inflation for people, whether on public and private insurance; and cap out-of-pocket costs for insulin at $35 per month.

Yet before senators can even vote on the bill, it must pass muster with the Senate’s parliamentarian, who begins reviewing on Monday whether the health provisions can pass under the chamber’s strict rules for bringing up bills for a simple-majority vote. Republicans — urged and advised by the pharmaceutical industry — plan to argue in particular that Democrats’ plan to control drug prices for 180 million Americans on private insurance should be scuttled because it’s advancing a policy agenda that is only “incidentally” related to saving the federal government money.

Democrats are gearing up to defend the provision — well aware that it’s one of the few pieces of the bill set to help the majority of voters on employer health plans — and say they’re confident it will prevail.

Given the widespread fear among Democrats that they could lose control of one or more chambers of Congress in next year’s midterm elections, the bill is seen as potentially their last chance to make good on years of campaign promises to lower health costs, amping up the pressure even further. With just a few weeks left until the end of the year and other items crowding the party’s to-do list, the possibility the work could slip into 2022 is rising. And the longer the work drags on, the more opportunity the deep-pocketed health care industry and its lobbyists have to peel away members on the margins and mobilize against provisions that would hurt their bottom line.

Though the Biden administration could pursue some executive branch regulations to curb soaring drug prices in the event that congressional efforts fall apart, those would be much narrower and less durable than the policies now being debated on Capitol Hill, which are themselves far weaker than what Democrats initially promised and advanced in the House.

The president, as he has dating back to the campaign trail, cast himself as someone who is not diametrically opposed to the pharmaceutical industry or unaware of the advancements it brings about. But he said the powerful interests were in need of a correction.

“Our miraculous therapies have in some cases turned diseases that were once considered death sentences into treatable conditions,” he said. “But we can make a distinction between developing those breakthroughs and jacking up prices on a range of medicines which have been on the market for years without making a substantive change in the medication itself.”

Monday’s speech fits within a broader White House strategy for a “no drama” end to the year, despite the numerous pitfalls that lie ahead. The president’s advisers are hoping to defuse several political landmines while maintaining focus on clinching a budget reconciliation agreement in the coming weeks.

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