Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Friday made clear that he supports lowering the eligibility age for Medicare and allowing the program to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies to cut the price of prescription drugs, policies that are being pushed by progressive advocacy groups and lawmakers—particularly Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders.
Despite growing demand for the Medicare eligibility and drug pricing reforms, President Joe Biden left the policies out of the American Families Plan he unveiled earlier this week, just before his first address to Congress. Schumer (N.Y.) discussed the healthcare policies, Biden's infrastructure proposal, and a variety of other topics with writer Anand Giridharadas, for his newsletter The.Ink.
The potential changes to Medicare came up near the end of the interview:
ANAND: I want to talk about some parts of the big, bold agenda that have fallen to the wayside. The public option, which Biden advocated for...
CHUCK: Oh, yeah, Bernie Sanders and I agree on this. I believe we should be negotiating—we just talked about this at some length; he and I must talk almost every single day—Medicare negotiating with the drug companies and using that money to expand Medicare.
ANAND: And what about the reduction in the Medicare eligibility age or adding a public option?
CHUCK: Yeah, I'd be for either of those, both of those.
ANAND: And is that going to be brought to the floor?
CHUCK: Well, we're going to push it. It's too early. I want to pass the biggest, boldest bill that, of course, we can pass. And we've got to figure all that out. We're going to try to fight hard to try to get these in the bill.
Although Biden's American Families Plan—the second prong of his infrastructure proposal—notably includes massive subsidies for the private insurance industry while leaving out the Medicare changes, the president did say in his speech to Congress, "Let's give Medicare the power to save hundreds of billions of dollars by negotiating lower drug prescription prices."
"And, by the way, that won't just... help people on Medicare; it will lower prescription drug costs for everyone," Biden added. "And the money we save, which is billions of dollars, can go to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and expand Medicare coverage benefits without costing taxpayers an additional penny. It's within our power to do it; let's do it now."
Biden calls for Medicare drug negotiations in his speech, but that idea was noticeably absent from his recent legislative proposals.
— Margot Sanger-Katz (@sangerkatz) April 29, 2021
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The Hill reported Friday that "congressional Democrats such as House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (Ore.) say they might add measures to lower prescription drug prices when the American Families Plan moves through Congress."
Sanders (I-Vt.) has publicly promised to keep fighting for an expansion of the program in terms of both eligibility and benefits, funded by the drug pricing reforms.
"My own view, as you know, is that we need a Medicare for All, single-payer system," Sanders said in a Wednesday video. Citing estimates that allowing Medicare to negotiate with Big Pharma would raise $450 billion over a decade, he expressed hope that the U.S. could move toward universal care by lowering the eligibility age from 65 and improving the program's benefits.
Tonight, with President Biden’s speech, we begin the process of dealing with the long-term structural problems facing this country. pic.twitter.com/28Pcfrm1ij
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) April 28, 2021
"It is outrageous that more than 50 years after Medicare was enacted, seniors still do not receive basic hearing, vision, and dental coverage. Many seniors are left unable to see because they can't afford eyeglasses, unable to hear because they can't afford hearing aids, and have trouble eating because they can't afford dentures," Sanders said in an email to supporters Friday.
"It is the moment for a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress to do what the American people want. We must expand Medicare benefits and lower the age of Medicare eligibility. Using our majority to take this step is not only the right thing to do for the American people—it's good politics as well," he continued, urging those who agree to sign his petition.
Sanders also took aim at Big Pharma, saying that "the lobbying power of the big drug companies means they are ripping off the government and charging the American people any price they want. Not only that. Because of the power of the pharmaceutical industry, all Americans are forced to pay—by far—the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. This absurdity must end."
“I want to hear. I want to see. I want to be able to eat and smile.”
It’s time to expand Medicare to cover vision, hearing and dental care. pic.twitter.com/WBp426PEEF
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) April 29, 2021
"Negotiating drug prices is what every other major country on Earth does," Sanders noted. "The Veterans Administration does it. Only Medicare is prohibited from taking this obvious step."
Arguing that "this is the very definition of a win-win-win situation," he added that "it's almost insane to think that we would have to fight for these obvious steps. But we must."