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Demonstrators demand lower prescription drug costs in front of the New York Stock Exchange on November 14, 2019. (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

'Let Them Know How You Feel,' Voters Urged as Pharma-Backed Dems Tank Drug Cost Plan

"We cannot and will not let a few of Big Pharma's fans in Congress who are more interested in protecting drug corporation profits than helping their constituents get affordable medicines block this overdue reform."

Brett Wilkins

Supporters of drug pricing reform expressed alarm Wednesday at efforts by right-wing congressional Democrats—including some of the biggest recipients of Big Pharma campaign contributions—to water down progressive-led efforts to lower the world's highest prescription medication costs.

Mirroring key items on Big Pharma's wishlist, corporate Democrats are taking aim at proposed drug pricing reforms in the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better budget reconciliation package. According to Politico:

Lawmakers, aides, and lobbyists close to the process said the leaders are now discussing making fewer drugs subject to government negotiation, and shifting the benchmark for such talks away from prices paid in other developed nations. Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Wednesday that he's in talks with House members who are insisting the bill be "sensitive to innovation" in the drug industry, and he suggested that the negotiated prices may be limited to Medicare and not apply to the private market or employer-sponsored plans, as progressives originally sought...

It's a coup for the pharmaceutical industry, which has spent tens of millions more on lobbying than any other industry so far this year.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), one of the leading House Democrats working on drug pricing reform legislation, told The Washington Post that the federal ban on Medicare drug price negotiation is "one of the biggest ongoing scams that we tolerate at the expense of the American people."

However, some Democratic lawmakers who back the reforms but are keen to win the support of their conservative colleagues as the sweeping reconciliation bill heads toward a possible vote feel they have no choice but to discuss diluting the legislation.

"It is alarming that a very modest bill could become even weaker," Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), chair of the health subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, told Politico. "I'm aware of how tight our vote is, but I don't believe any of the changes... do anything other than make it approach meaninglessness."

Critics of the right-wing Democrats who are standing in the way of the reforms say, "Follow the money."

As Common Dreams reported Wednesday, Big Pharma and private health insurers have spent $171 million so far in 2021 on lobbying, the most of any industry. According to the campaign finance and corporate lobbying watchdog Open Secrets, congressional Democrats received 28% more than their Republican colleagues from pharmaceutical and health products interests last year.

Among Senate Democrats working to block or water down drug pricing reform, Tom Carper (Del.) received $707,000 in Big Pharma contributions, followed by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who took $519,000, according to the progressive consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

Sinema, who campaigned on a promise to "make healthcare more affordable, lower prescription drug prices, and fix the problems in the system—not go back to letting insurance companies call all the shots," is among the staunchest opponents of the Democrats' plan to allow Medicare to leverage its bulk buying power to negotiate lower prices.

In the House, three Democrats blocking drug pricing reform—Scott Peters (Calif.), Kathleen Rice (N.Y.), and Kurt Schrader (Ore.)—have taken a combined $1.6 million from Big Pharma. Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who according to Public Citizen has "voted against every provision of the drug price reform bill in the Way and Means Committee," raked in more than $242,000 in campaign cash from the pharmaceutical industry. 

Big Pharma has reaped enormous returns on its investment. According to a new report published Thursday by Public Citizen, Americans are paying more for the top 20 "blockbuster" drugs than the rest of the world combined.

Margarida Jorge, head of the Lower Drug Prices Now campaign, recently said that pharmaceutical corporations are trying to torpedo pricing reform "for one reason and one reason only: to protect their sky-high profits and lavish CEO pay."

"Their army of lobbyists may have bought off enough politicians to win this vote, but they won't have the final say," Jorge asserted. "We cannot and will not let a few of Big Pharma's fans in Congress who are more interested in protecting drug corporation profits than helping their constituents get affordable medicines block this overdue reform."

Jorge added that "reconciliation is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this done and there is no way to build back better without lowering drug prices. Democrats must not let this opportunity pass."

Progressive supporters of the budget reconciliation package have increasingly expressed their frustration with their obstructionist Democrat colleagues. Following reports that Sinema would host a fundraiser to solicit checks from corporate lobbyists opposed to the $3.5 trillion bill, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Co.) on Tuesday called the Arizona senator's prioritization of big donor interests over the needs of her constituents "sickening," while Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) quipped that "we obviously didn't envision having Republicans as part of our party."

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