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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)

Progressives Say 'It's Not Too Late' to Prevent Big Pharma From Destroying Democrats' Drug Price Promise

"Democrats ran on lowering drug prices. Seniors and working families across the country are counting on them to keep that promise," said one group.

Kenny Stancil

While expressing their frustration with the gutting of President Joe Biden's agenda to tax corporations and the wealthy to fund expanded public benefits and climate action, healthcare advocates are stressing that there is still an opportunity for progressive lawmakers to fight for the inclusion of expanded Medicare benefits and lower drug prices in the Democratic Party's not-yet-finalized reconciliation bill.

"Democrats still have a huge opportunity to deliver on a promise they have been making for decades to lower drug prices."

"The White House's latest draft of the Build Back Better package is deeply flawed," Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, said Thursday in a statement. "Not only does the draft fail to lower drug prices, it also fails to add dental and vision benefits to Medicare."

"There's nothing more popular with voters across the political spectrum than allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, and using the savings to expand Medicare benefits," Lawson continued.

Surveys show that 84% of U.S. adults, including nearly nine in 10 Democrats, support the party's proposal to expand Medicare to cover dental, hearing, and vision services for tens of millions of seniors. Roughly the same percentage of voters want Medicare to be empowered to reduce the costs of medications, for which Americans pay two to four times more than people in other countries.

Pointing to the widespread, bipartisan support for such long-standing goals, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said earlier this week that "Congress must finally have the courage to stand up to the greed of Big Pharma."

To appease a few right-wing Democratic obstructionists, however, Biden's recently unveiled Build Back Better framework proposes slashing the previously agreed-upon 10-year spending level in half, from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion, which would result in several devastating cuts.

While drug price reform and dental and vision benefits are among the casualties for now, Lawson argued that "it's not too late for congressional Democrats to listen to the people." 

Social Security Works urged people to tell their members of Congress that the Build Back Better Act "must include these vital priorities," which the advocacy group said will require Democratic lawmakers to pressure the party's conservative holdouts to "stop their sabotage."

Just a handful of corporate-funded Democrats are standing in the way of expanding Medicare benefits and authorizing the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices, including Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), Bob Menendez (N.J.), and Joe Manchin (W.Va.), as well as Reps. Kathleen Rice (N.Y.), Scott Peters (Calif.), and Kurt Schrader (Ore.).

"Democrats still have a huge opportunity to deliver on a promise they have been making for decades to lower drug prices," Margarida Jorge, head of Lower Drug Prices Now, said Thursday in a statement. "They should not toss it away to accommodate Republicans and a handful of pharma-backed Democrats in the House and Senate who support Big Pharma's interests over those of their own constituents."

Calling it "bad policy and bad politics" to leave pharmaceutical corporations "in charge of drug prices while one-third of Americans ration or go without medicine," Jorge added that "we urge lawmakers in Congress to amend this framework to include serious reform and keep their promise to lower drug prices."

The lack of a new dental benefit for Medicare recipients in the Build Back Better Act is "unacceptable," stressed the Medicare Rights Center, which said that the omission "must be addressed before either chamber of Congress votes on the bill. There is way too much need and the policy is way too popular to not cover dental in Medicare."

As Common Dreams reported on Thursday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and other progressive House Democrats including Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), and Cori Bush (Mo.), have reiterated that they will not vote for the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill without seeing the final legislative text of the Build Back Better Act and without assurances that it will pass the Senate.

That strategy was endorsed by Sanders and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who tweeted Thursday that "the point of this two-track process was to have both the infrastructure bill and investments in America's families and our climate pass together."

"Letting Big Pharma keep their monopoly power to price-gouge patients... means that millions of Americans continue to face tough choices between putting food on their table and taking the prescriptions they need to stay alive."

"Details matter," Merkley added, "and House Progressives are right to take the time to make sure we fully deliver for the American people."

Sanders, meanwhile, has pledged to keep fighting to get vision care, dental care, and lower drug prices into the social welfare and climate package, which can be passed through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process but only with the support of all 50 Senate Democrats and all but three House Democrats.

Biden's current Build Back Better framework has "major gaps in it," Sanders told The Hill on Thursday, adding that "the American people are very, very clear that they're sick and tired of paying the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs."

Vowing to strengthen the bill, Sanders said that "we have got to move forward to dental, as well as eyeglasses and the cost of prescription drugs."

And Sanders may not be alone. According to Politico reporter Alice Miranda Ollstein, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Thursday insisted that "drug pricing will be in the final bill, despite its exclusion" from the current framework. Echoing Sanders' message from earlier this week, Wyden reportedly called the provision "non-negotiable."

Wyden "is absolutely right," said Social Security Works. "Democrats ran on lowering drug prices. Seniors and working families across the country are counting on them to keep that promise" in the Build Back Better Act.

Politico reported Thursday that Wyden hopes Democrats can "still find a way to address rising prescription drug costs but acknowledged the power the industry has shown so far to prevent even modest changes."

"Pharma is everywhere," said Wyden. "They have got more lobbyists than anybody."

As Common Dreams reported last month, Big Pharma and private health insurers spent $171 million on lobbying through the first nine months of the year, the most of any industry.

According to Politico:

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, did spend more than any other healthcare group trying to shape the legislative package. But other deep-pocketed players—from the nation's biggest insurance companies to dental practices—are also poised to secure significant victories while dodging threats to their bottom lines.

Congress is poised to extend federal subsidies to buy Obamacare coverage until 2025, a provision favored by big insurers that sell plans on the individual market. Democrats are also set to subsidize private coverage for roughly two million low-income people in states that refused to expand Medicaid rather than create a new Medicaid-like program—another boon for health plans and medical providers who earn far more in the private insurance market than they do from Medicaid. Democrats' promise to provide dental coverage to all seniors on Medicare was also scuttled after insurance companies and the dental industry lobbied against it, and a nascent effort to claw back government payments from privately run Medicare Advantage plans was similarly abandoned.

Researchers from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) called it "deeply disappointing that the framework does not include any language on negotiating drug prices."

"The public pays for drug research, and federal law gives the pharmaceutical industry patent monopolies on the products produced with this publicly funded research," said the group of political economists. "The industry should not be allowed to charge whatever it wants for drugs that are needed for people's lives or health."

Jorge from Lower Drug Prices Now said that "letting Big Pharma keep their monopoly power to price-gouge patients on everything from insulin to cancer drugs means that millions of Americans continue to face tough choices between putting food on their table and taking the prescriptions they need to stay alive."

"To build back better," she added, "lawmakers must stand up to Big Pharma, rather than protect the status quo that enables drug corporations to continue making massive profits while workers, employers, and patients struggle to get access to affordable medicines."

Politico reported that "progressives on Capitol Hill say they plan to keep pushing back against the industry's influence, particularly on the drug pricing front."

Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) told the news outlet that "it's unconscionable right now, frankly, after all these years and with the popularity of this issue, that we haven't gotten this done."

"I'm not interested in crumbs," she added. "The danger of doing some half-assed version is that all of a sudden, people think, 'Oh, we got something on prescription drugs, so we're not gonna do anything else.'"

Alluding to Big Pharma's deadly profiteering earlier this week, Sanders asked: "How many people need to die, how many people need to get unnecessarily sicker, how many people will needlessly suffer before the Congress will summon the courage to finally take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry?"

"If he fails, President Biden isn't going to get a second chance."

Speaking to a group of reporters Wednesday night, one day before Biden's framework was released, Sanders said that "the challenge that we face in this really unusual moment in American history is whether we have the courage to stand with the American people and take on very powerful special interests."

"If we fail—in my view, if the American people do not believe that government can work for them and is dominated by powerful special interests, the very fabric of American democracy is in danger," he added.

That sentiment was shared by Kelli Rhee, who wrote Friday in The Hill that "the Biden administration needs to decide whether those Big Pharma profits are worth forcing American families to the financial brink."

"For the first time in 15 years, Democrats have the opportunity to pass the serious drug pricing reform that voters have been demanding—and politicians have been promising," noted Rhee. "We can't wait another 15 years. The time to act is now. Because if he fails, President Biden isn't going to get a second chance."

Lawson from Social Security Works, meanwhile, emphasized that "the final Build Back Better package must include robust provisions to lower drug prices and expand Medicare."

"We need a package," he added, "that's built for working people, not for Big Pharma lobbyists."


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