After years in the political wilderness, Democrats finally rode into power in Washington on dual waves of an unpopular president and popular policy promises. At the top of their to-do list was a plan to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, saving millions of dollars for taxpayers and patients alike.
That was 2006. The plan never passed.
Here we are 15 years later facing the same scenario. Democrats were elected on a platform of drug pricing reform and, yet again, it looks like they won’t deliver. Dealing with opposition from a handful of members of Congress on the Big Pharma payroll, the Biden administration has dropped drug pricing from the Build Back Better framework.
Failure to implement drug pricing reform will be a political and policy failure on a historic scale. President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Democrats' struggle for voting rights bill comes to a head David Weil: Wrong man, wrong place, wrong time Biden's voting rights gamble prompts second-guessing MORE needs to use every bit of his political skill, call in every favor, to get his pharmaceutical policies back into the BBB.
The American people are sick and tired of watching campaign promises crash into a brick wall of congressional incompetence. The president ran for office touting his experience and ability to make Washington work again. The word of a Biden must not mean much if the White House can’t even pass this overwhelmingly popular package of drug pricing reforms, such as allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, setting inflationary caps on price increases in Medicare and the commercial sector, and capping out-of-pocket costs for men and women on Medicare.
We can’t let another 15 years go by while Americans pay nearly four times as much as other wealthy nations for the same brand-name pharmaceuticals. We can’t let another generation of retirees be forced to choose between paying their bills or picking up their medications. No other developed nation allows its people to suffer like this. The need for these policies is so great that Democrats should even be willing to drop other aspects of the final reconciliation package in order to get drug pricing reform to the president’s desk.
The sheer statistics should be convincing enough. Simply allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices is one of the highest polling policies on the table, with support from nearly 90 percent of voters — Democrats, Republicans and independents. To put things in context, it is basically as popular as Christmas.
If implemented, these policies would help millions of Americans afford life-saving medical care. Right now, 18 million U.S. adults say they were unable to pay for at least one doctor-prescribed medication in the past three months. Nearly one in three adults reported not taking medicine as prescribed this year because it was too expensive. And almost half of all cancer patients deplete their entire net worth paying for the first two years of treatment.
What really elevates drug pricing reform above so many other popular policies in the Build Back Better bill is that it would actually save taxpayer dollars. While Congress debates adding trillions to the national debt, controlling the costs of pharmaceuticals will move the needle in the other direction by capping how much the government spends on Medicare health coverage. The policies currently under consideration in the Build Back Better bill would save taxpayers almost $500 billion over the next decade.
But if Congress doesn’t act, things will only get worse. Costs to patients will continue to grow. Taxpayers will remain on the hook for inflated pharmaceutical prices. And once again, trust in our political system will suffer as voters watch their representatives fail to deliver on one of the most important and widely supported policies in decades.
Of course, Biden and the Democrats aren’t the only ones in Congress responsible for this cascading failure to pass evidence-based reforms. Republicans share in this blame as they continue to betray their support for market-based policy by refusing to endorse drug price negotiations. Little surprise that former President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpClyburn says he's worried about losing House, 'losing this democracy' Sinema reignites 2024 primary chatter amid filibuster fight Why not a Manchin-DeSantis ticket for 2024? MORE — the party standard-bearer — was a vociferous supporter of drug pricing reform. Siphoning taxpayer dollars to pay for overpriced pharmaceuticals is the sort of tax-and-spend policies Republicans purport to loathe. But when it comes time to put fiscal responsibility over partisan convenience, it becomes clear that lobbyist checks matter more than taxpayer pocketbooks.
During the 2020 election cycle, the billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry wrote more than 10,000 individual checks totaling more than $9 million to at least 2,500 state legislators — demonstrating their war on all fronts to block necessary reforms to lower drug prices for Americans across the country. And lobbying only accelerated this year.
These lobbyists get paid for their ability to promote the misleading narrative about how Big Pharma needs to extort working class Americans in order to fund the development of new cures. The American people must apparently suffer for the next Viagra. But in reality, the drug industry uses this windfall not to fund research or development, but on stock buybacks and TV ads. Pharmaceutical company revenues from U.S. prices have far exceeded their global R&D spending.
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. 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.
Kelli Rhee is president and CEO of Arnold Ventures, a Houston-based philanthropy dedicated to tackling some of the most pressing problems in the United States.