Trump health chief presses Congress to pass drug discount plan

Trump health chief presses Congress to pass drug discount plan
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Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is pressing Congress to pass a bill to completely upend the way prescription drugs are purchased through private insurance.

Azar’s remarks come on the heels of a new proposal from the Trump administration that would eliminate Medicare rebates paid by drug manufacturers to insurers, and give them directly to patients at the pharmacy counter.

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Azar said he wants Congress to go further and apply the change to the private market.

“Congress has an opportunity to follow through on their calls for transparency, too, by passing our proposal into law immediately and extending it into the commercial drug market,” Azar said Friday during a speech at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The proposed rule would scale back the legal protections on secretive rebates between drug manufacturers, insurers and pharmacy benefits managers as a way to lower drug prices for Medicare.

The administration claims it has authority to change Medicare pricing, but only Congress can act on the private market.

Congress and the administration are under pressure to lower drug prices. The proposal could show the administration is acting on the president’s promise of action ahead of Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

In a sit-down with reporters, Azar said he thinks the idea, like most of what the administration is attempting to do to bring down drug prices, should be bipartisan.

“We’re all trying to solve the same problems,” Azar said. “If you want to oppose these changes you must have an alternative to the status quo.” 

Azar and other administration officials have been regularly speaking with lawmakers and staff about rebates in general, but not about specific legislation.

“There’s a lot of energy on the Hill to look at ... these provisions, whether they’re ones the administration has initialized or other thoughts. We’re clearly engaged on that,” Azar said.

Congressional responses to the administration’s plan were mixed though, and highlight the tension around drug pricing proposals on Capitol Hill.

Both parties agree prices are too high, but some lawmakers are reluctant to do anything that might be considered too drastic.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneFederal watchdog finds cybersecurity vulnerabilities in FCC systems Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Deal on surprise medical bills faces obstacles | House GOP unveils rival drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote | Justices to hear case over billions in ObamaCare payments Obstacles remain for deal on surprise medical bills MORE (D-N.J.) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealHouse Democrats' bill would create a second round of direct coronavirus relief payments Lawmakers question why dead people are getting coronavirus checks Congress, Treasury tussle over IRS guidance on .2T COVID-19 package MORE (D-Mass.) said the plan would result in seniors paying higher premiums.

The plan “will increase government spending by nearly $200 billion and the majority of Medicare beneficiaries will see their premiums and total out-of-pocket costs increase if this proposal is finalized,” Pallone and Neal said in a joint statement.

“While we agree that the cost of prescription drugs must be addressed, we are concerned that this is not the right approach.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley: White House 'failed to address' if there was a 'good reason' for IG firings GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill State Department scrutiny threatens Pompeo's political ambitions MORE (R-Iowa) seemed to be fully supportive of the idea.

The proposal shows the administration “is serious [about] lowering health care costs for patients & taking tough steps needed for transparency+accountability even if drug [companies] or middlemen don’t like it,” Grassley said on Twitter.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenMcCarthy urges Democrats to pull surveillance bill FISA 'reform': Groundhog Day edition Medicaid providers increasingly frustrated by delays in COVID-19 funding MORE (D-Ore.), the ranking member of the Finance Committee, took a more favorable tone than House Democrats, but also said he wants to go further.  

“For years I’ve said the middlemen have no accountability and consumers don’t see any savings at the pharmacy counter,” Wyden said. “I’m going to go the next step and push to force drug companies to lower their list prices to fully account for the removal of rebates rather than pocket the difference as a windfall.”