The Washington Post

3 Democrats balk at drug-price plan

Lawmakers’ opposition poses threat to wider Biden spending package

- BY DAN DIAMOND, RACHEL ROUBEIN AND AMY GOLDSTEIN dan.diamond@washpost.com rachel.roubein@washpost.com amy.goldstein@washpost.com

A trio of key Democrats announced Tuesday they will oppose the party’s plan to lower drug prices, creating a significan­t roadblock for Democrats’ desired $3.5 trillion tax and spending package.

Reps. Scott Peters (D- Calif.), Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) and Kurt Schrader (D- Ore.) said they will oppose drug-pricing changes that would allow Medicare to negotiate lower prices and that have become the framework to pay for many of Democrats’ sought-after measures this year. The three lawmakers are members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of several panels debating the budget reconcilia­tion package, and say they have concerns about a plan to empower Medicare to negotiate directly with drug companies.

The drug-pricing changes are widely regarded as a linchpin to a broader set of health-care changes that Democrats hope to enact, with the savings on federal pharmaceut­ical spending helping to pay for the rest. The pharmaceut­ical industry and Republican­s have staunchly opposed the drugprice plan, arguing it will hurt the industry’s ability to develop drugs — an argument echoed Tuesday by the Democratic holdouts.

“I support many of the proposals being considered this week, but I do not support advancing policies that are not fiscally responsibl­e and jeopardize the bill’s final passage,” Rice said in a statement.

“I want to be clear — I support Medicare drug price negotiatio­ns,” Schrader said in a statement Tuesday, but he introduced a rival proposal that would limit Medicare’s power to negotiate to “the most expensive subset of drugs on the market.”

Patient advocates and most congressio­nal Democrats have argued that allowing Medicare — the national health insurance program for older Americans — to use its bargaining power would drive down U.S. drug prices.

While Democrats’ drug-pricing plan can still advance to a floor vote in the House, the three members’ opposition puts the broader reconcilia­tion package at risk and may force leaders to compromise on its provisions. Democrats cannot lose another vote for the drugprice plan if it is to be included in their massive social spending package, known as the Build Back Better Act, and other centrist members of the party have signaled they have their own sets of concerns.

House Democrats have pinned their reconcilia­tion strategy on enacting measures contained in legislatio­n passed by the House in 2019 called H.R. 3; that legislatio­n died in the Senate. The Democrats cite Congressio­nal Budget Office projection­s that the bill’s drug-negotiatio­n provisions would lower drug prices and cut federal spending by $456 billion over a decade. Those savings could then be used to broaden the social safety net, such as by offering additional Medicare benefits and allowing more people to enroll in Medicaid, the government’s health insurance program for low-income Americans, party leaders argue.

H.R. 3 “called for using savings from the negotiatio­n for prescripti­on drug prices — the savings from that to be used for expanding dental, visual and hearing benefits for seniors,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.) said last week. “We’re all for that.”

On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D- Ore.) is hashing out a drug-price negotiatio­n plan of his own — and also must try to thread a needle between the moderate and liberal wings of his caucus.

While H.R. 3 passed the House in a 230 to 192 vote in December 2019, Democrats have since lost seats in the chamber. They can afford only three defections in the House and none in the Senate.

Republican­s have been unified in their opposition to the reconcilia­tion plan, which can pass with a simple majority in both chambers.

Democrats have sought to tamp down perception­s of infighting as their reconcilia­tion package proceeds.

Congressio­nal aides noted that the House Ways and Means Committee can still advance the drugprice plan for a floor vote, even if the measure stalls in the Energy Committee.

Advocacy groups have pressed Democrats to remain in lockstep on the drug-pricing provisions.

Some groups also castigated the pharmaceut­ical industry Tuesday, suggesting the deeppocket­ed sector had helped fuel some Democrats’ resistance to drug-pricing measures.

Pharmaceut­ical industry officials argued that lawmakers such as Peters, who voted for H.R. 3 in 2019, have independen­tly reconsider­ed the plan after Democrats secured unified control of Congress and the White House and Washington’s political realities shifted.

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