Health Care

Republicans take shots at Becerra over drug price reform, child migrants

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra testifies during the Senate Finance Committee hearing on President Joe Biden’s proposed budget request for fiscal year 2024 for the Department of Health and Human Services, Wednesday, March 22, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

Senate Republicans questioned the Biden administration’s plans to tackle prescription drug prices among other priorities during two hearings Wednesday featuring Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. 

Biden’s budget proposals build off of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed last year, which allows Medicare to negotiate prices of certain drugs. The budget proposal would expand the list of medications and streamline the negotiating process.

GOP senators on the Finance and Appropriations committees said the administration’s proposals would hurt pharmaceutical development.

“The budget that you brought to us is full of things that get in the way of research,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said. “It would prevent new drugs and therapies from coming to market. It would weaken (intellectual property) protections. It would expand big government.”

Becerra largely avoided engaging GOP members on the issue, but Democrats played down the Republican concerns, saying the plan saves the government money and does not need to impact investment in research at drug companies making enormous profits. 

“The notion was raised, according to some, that Medicare being able to negotiate to hold down drug prices would somehow reduce innovation and damage new drug creation,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said. “The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office looked at this issue specifically and estimated ‘minimal impact on new medicines coming to market.’”

Still, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C) dubbed the IRA the “Investment Reduction Act,” in the committee, saying that the impacts of the bill can already be felt in lowered research investment.

“These are the effects of not getting policy right,” he said.

The Republican criticism echoes concerns raised by the pharmaceutical industry itself in response to proposals to lower drug prices. 

Senate Republicans in both committees also went after Becerra over reports of unaccompanied minor refugees being placed with sponsors who send them to work in poor conditions.

Minors who enter the U.S. can not be housed in Department of Homeland Security facilities with adults and must be placed with a sponsor within three days of entering the country. 

“The (Unaccompanied Alien Children) program is plagued by deficiencies, poor management, when combined with this administration’s reckless and irresponsible policies encourage illegal immigration and, I believe, put the lives and well-being of children at risk,” Sen. Katie Britt (R-Ala.) said.

Becerra noted that about 90 percent of unaccompanied minor refugees are placed with parents or other family members in the country and that all sponsors are vetted by the department. Britt and other Senate Republicans said that isn’t enough.

“It’s not the people at HHS; it’s the management and policy,” Britt said. 

Becerra said HHS is working alongside DHS and the Department of Labor to better ensure the safety of unaccompanied minor refugees. He said that once the minors are placed with families, checking in on the children falls to DHS after their court dates.

Democrats in the committees praised Becerra and the president’s budget priorities, which include an increase in medicare benefits and an increase in the medicare tax on wealthy Americans to fund the program. 

The budget plan also expands funding for cancer research, mental health services, childcare services, pandemic preparedness funding and other policy proposals.

Tags drug prices Joe Biden Katie Britt Marsha Blackburn Marsha Blackburn President Joe Biden Ron Wyden Ron Wyden thom tillis Thom Tillis Xavier Becerra Xavier Becerra

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