Trump talks tough but little action seen on drug prices

Trump talks tough but little action seen on drug prices

President Trump blasted the pharmaceutical industry for “getting away with murder” with steep drug prices during the campaign and since, but his administration has done little to force the industry to change its ways.

As recently as Oct. 16, the president repeated the “getting away with murder” line and promised to bring prices “way down.” But despite the rhetoric, Trump has not acted on most of the drug pricing promises he made during the election.

Activists said they are disappointed.

“I actually believe the president understands that people are hurting and he correctly IDs the problem — but the processes in his administration have been captured by the drug companies,” said David Mitchell, president and founder of Patients for Affordable Drugs.


The White House would not comment about possible plans and pointed to a hospital pay rule proposed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) as evidence of the administration fulfilling Trump’s promises.

The July proposal included a provision to change how much hospitals pay for certain Medicare drugs under a federal discount program. The CMS said the aim was to pass savings on to seniors.

Drug industry lobbyists said the administration is focusing its priorities elsewhere and letting Congress and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) take the lead.

A leaked executive order over the summer that has yet to be finalized was viewed by outside experts to be favorable to industry. Among other policies, the order would cut regulations to speed up drug approvals and encourage trade policies that would strengthen the intellectual property rights of pharmaceutical companies.

The administration would not confirm the existence of the order, but critics did not see a link between speeding drug approvals, strengthening intellectual property and falling prices.

They also point to key administration posts being filled by those with industry ties to suggest Trump is not likely to make a serious move.

Trump is reportedly leaning toward appointing a former executive at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly as the next head of the Department of Health and Human Services.

During the campaign, Trump backed allowing Medicare to negotiate directly with drug companies, as well as to expand importation of cheaper medicine.

When Trump broke with his party to endorse these ideas, activists and Democrats saw a glimmer of hope.

“Trump coming in and saying that was noteworthy,” said Chris Jennings, a health policy consultant and former aide to President Obama and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House would like to see Biden ‘in the boxing ring’ in 2020 House Judiciary chair subpoenas DOJ for FBI documents The suit to make Electoral College more ‘fair’ could make it worse MORE.

“Someone with a Republican tag explicitly raising those concerns was scary to Republicans on Capitol Hill and to [the pharmaceutical industry].”

Trump took a preliminary step on the issue in March.

Reps. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsOvernight Health Care: What to expect in omnibus | HIV expert to head CDC | Sessions issues memo on death penalty for drug cases Coherent strategy needed beyond limited sanctions to counter Russian aggression House Oversight Dems: GOP blocking request for Trump admin records MORE (D-Md.) and Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchSo-called ‘Dem’ ethanol bill has it all wrong Overnight Regulation: Trump officials block GOP governor from skirting ObamaCare rules | House eases pollution rules for some coal plants | Senate vote on Dodd-Frank changes delayed Dem bill would overhaul ethanol mandate MORE (D-Vt.) met with Trump to discuss their bill to give Medicare negotiating power.

Then the GOP’s monthslong effort to repeal ObamaCare kicked into high gear, and the lawmakers say they never heard back from the president. 

Cummings and several high-profile Democrats in the House and Senate recently introduced that legislation and said they are frustrated the measure hasn’t received a full-throated endorsement from Trump. 

One area where the administration is acting is through the FDA, with even critics saying the signs are positive.

The agency is aiming to boost competition by reducing regulatory barriers for generic drugs to get to the market, which could help to slow the growth or even lower the price of prescription drugs.

“[FDA Commissioner Scott] Gottlieb is stepping up to the plate to do what is in his power. Competition from generics lowers drug prices,” Mitchell said.

And Trump is not likely to stop blasting the industry from time to time, putting them on edge.

One industry lobbyist said Trump’s rhetoric is concerning, especially since his attacks on drug companies did not stop when he took office.

“He tweets it and talks about it still, so we’re still worried,” the lobbyist said.

Still, the Cabinet is dominated by free-market conservatives who oppose government interference. And a Republican-controlled Congress means any bill expanding drug importation or allowing Medicare price negotiation faces an uphill climb.

The failure of congressional Republicans to repeal ObamaCare and the intensely partisan nature of health-care legislation also looms large over the drug pricing debate.

“Look at how difficult it is to pass things the GOP is for,” a former Republican aide said.

“Imagine if you’d propose things they’re against! Why put something out there that will be ignored?”

Trump has shown a willingness to attack members of his own party, but the former GOP aide said it is unlikely that Trump would “go to war” over Medicare price negotiations or drug importation.