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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) appear at a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on June 24, 2019. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

'We're Not Giving Up': Sanders, Other Progressives Fight to Rescue Drug Price Reforms

"Giving Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices will save the government billions. But most importantly, it will save lives."

Jake Johnson

Sen. Bernie Sanders, lawmakers in vulnerable districts, and grassroots progressive groups are ramping up their last-ditch effort to rescue a plan to lower U.S. prescription drug prices as the longstanding—and widely popular—Democratic campaign promise is at risk of being excluded from President Joe Biden's signature domestic policy bill.

"It is outrageous that we continue to pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs."

As top Democratic lawmakers continued discussing a possible compromise on medicine pricing over the weekend, Sanders (I-Vt.)—the chair of the Senate Budget Committee—made clear Sunday that he still sees prescription drug reforms as a crucial component of the Build Back Better Act, which has been sliced in half to appease corporate-backed Democrats in the Senate and House.

"It is outrageous that we continue to pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs and that one out of four Americans cannot afford the prescriptions that their doctors write," the Vermont senator said in an appearance on CNN. "That is not acceptable."

Sanders, who is closely involved in ongoing reconciliation talks, pointed to recent survey data showing that more than 80% of the U.S. public believes Medicare should have the power to directly negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry, something it is currently barred from doing under federal law.

"So the issue is, right now, the pharmaceutical industry is doing everything that it can to make sure that one out of four Americans is unable to afford the prescriptions that their doctors write. People are dying," said Sanders. "As soon as I leave the studio, I'm going to be going back home to get on the phone to make sure that we have [drug price reforms]."

Prescription drug price reforms—which Democratic lawmakers and candidates have been running on for years—were entirely absent from a $1.75 trillion reconciliation framework the Biden administration unveiled last week, an omission that prompted immediate outrage from progressive healthcare campaigners.

Predictably, the pharmaceutical industry has mobilized its vast resources and an army of around 1,500 registered lobbyists—nearly three for each member of Congress—in an effort to kill Democrats' proposed price reforms, the savings from which progressives hope to use to fund an expansion of Medicare benefits.

Analysts have estimated that allowing Medicare to directly negotiate drug prices would save the federal government hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade.

"We’re not giving up. We're going to fight until the last possible minute."

"Giving Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices will save the government billions," Social Security Works, a progressive advocacy group, said Monday. "But most importantly, it will save lives."

While there's still hope on Capitol Hill that lawmakers will ultimately include a version of the drug pricing plan in the final reconciliation package, it's unclear how ambitious the compromise proposal will be compared to the original, which was based on Democratic legislation known as H.R. 3.

"Is this hard? Hell yes," David Mitchell, a cancer patient and founder of Patients for Affordable Drugs Now, told the Washington Post, noting Big Pharma's massive lobbying blitz. "We're not giving up. We're going to fight until the last possible minute."

Politico reported Sunday that "if Democrats are able to reinsert a drug plan, lawmakers and aides say it will hew closer to the far more narrow and industry-friendly version put forward by House and Senate centrists and endorsed by the White House than the aggressive plan that already passed the House twice." With a vote on the full Build Back Better Act expected as soon as Tuesday, a drug pricing deal could be announced in the coming hours.

"Though the drug industry's goal is preventing any government price negotiation whatsoever, limiting the bargaining to a narrow subset of drugs and leaning more heavily on measures like out-of-pocket caps that don't impact the companies' bottom line would be a victory in itself," Politico noted. "Several progressives and frontliners said they would rather leave drug pricing out of the package altogether than pass what they see as a weak version that will sap motivation for future action."

While Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and other prominent members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—including the "Squad"—have vocally and consistently supported drug price reforms, some more moderate Democrats are also on board with bold changes.

Rep. Susan Wild, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, expressed concern that if the plan to lower drug prices "goes back in" to the reconciliation package at this point, "it'll be the Peters version or even worse," a reference to Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), an ally of the pharmaceutical industry. Peters is part of a small group of industry-backed conservative Democrats—including Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York—threatening to tank their own party's core drug price ambitions.

"I’m pretty upset about it," said Wild. "It's just horrible."

On Sunday, Wild and 14 other House Democrats representing swing districts sent a letter to Democratic leaders imploring them to secure substantial prescription drug price reforms in the final reconciliation package—or face potentially disastrous political consequences.

"If we fail, we'll need to explain to them why we let Big Pharma win, why we let entrenched special interests take precedence over the American people," the lawmakers wrote. "We must deliver on our promise to lower the amount of money our constituents pay for prescription drugs. We must demonstrate that we work for the American people and not the pharmaceutical industry."

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