Trump health chief presses Congress to pass drug discount plan

Trump health chief presses Congress to pass drug discount plan
© Getty Images

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.


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 PalloneHouse reaches deal on continuing resolution, vote expected Thursday Democrats hold first hearing in push for clean energy by 2050 EXCLUSIVE: Swing-state voters oppose 'surprise' medical bill legislation, Trump pollster warns MORE (D-N.J.) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealLobbying groups ask Congress for help on Trump tariffs Senate confirms two Treasury nominees over Democratic objections Trump urges judge to deny New York's motion to dismiss state tax return lawsuit 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 GrassleyGOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan NRA says Trump administration memo a 'non-starter' Barr fails to persuade Cruz on expanded background checks 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 WydenDefense bill talks set to start amid wall fight Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Lobbying groups ask Congress for help on Trump tariffs 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.”