Senate Finance leaders in talks on deal to limit drug price increases

Senate Finance leaders in talks on deal to limit drug price increases
© Greg Nash

The leaders of the Senate Finance Committee are in bipartisan talks on a potentially sweeping deal to limit drug price increases in Medicare, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Senate Democrats vow to keep pushing for more funds for mail-in voting Hillicon Valley: Coronavirus deal includes funds for mail-in voting | Twitter pulled into fight over virus disinformation | State AGs target price gouging | Apple to donate 10M masks MORE (Ore.), the top Democrat on the panel, is pushing to make drug companies pay back rebates to Medicare’s prescription drug program, called Part D, if their prices rise faster than inflation. Another measure would force drug companies to pay money back to Medicare if they launch a new drug with a high price. 

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Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyLobbying blitz yields wins for airlines, corporations, banks, unions Chances for drug pricing, surprise billing action fade until November Stimulus talks to miss McConnell's Monday deadline MORE (R-Iowa) has not ruled the idea out; asked specifically about the paybacks for price increases that outpace inflation, he confirmed he was involved in the discussions.

“I’m not going to answer your question for this reason, that we’re negotiating on that,” Grassley told The Hill.

“We’ve got to get a bipartisan agreement,” he added.

But some GOP senators are pushing back on the far-reaching proposal, arguing it comes too close to price controls for drugs, which Republicans have long opposed.

Grassley and Wyden have been in talks for months on a package to lower drug prices, but this proposal could have a greater impact than other ideas that have been discussed, such as rearranging the incentives for different industry players in Medicare Part D.

Wyden declined to comment on the specifics of the negotiations but said that he is pushing to make sure there are significant changes that actually lower the cost of drugs in any deal he signs on to.

“You’ve got to have meaningful steps to rein in high drug prices, and the chairman and I are talking about [the drug pricing package] every day, sometimes several times a day, and the focus is on getting it right,” Wyden told The Hill last week.

The proposal could face a tough road among rank-and-file GOP lawmakers.

Grassley is well known as an advocate of lowering drug prices and has been willing to oppose the powerful pharmaceutical industry on some issues — to a much greater degree than many other Republican lawmakers.

Sen. Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoLobbying blitz yields wins for airlines, corporations, banks, unions Stimulus empowers Treasury to rescue airlines with billion in direct assistance White House, Senate reach deal on trillion stimulus package MORE (R-Idaho), a senior member of the Finance Committee, told The Hill on Tuesday that he is “evaluating” the rebate proposal. “I haven’t reached a conclusion on it yet,” he said.

Asked if other GOP senators thought the idea went too far, Crapo replied, “That’s what I understand.”

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Drug companies, a powerful force in Washington, are sure to oppose the idea, adding to its obstacles.

Still, there appears to be momentum on both sides for taking some action on drug pricing.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump orders US troops back to active duty for coronavirus response Trump asserts power to decide info inspector general for stimulus gives Congress Fighting a virus with the wrong tools MORE has been calling for lower drug prices for years, and his staff is in talks with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDC argues it is shortchanged by coronavirus relief bill Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — US coronavirus cases hit 100,000 | Trump signs T stimulus package | Trump employs defense powers to force GM to make ventilators | New concerns over virus testing Hillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike MORE’s (D-Calif.) office about allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices in some form.

But the Senate Finance Committee is working on a separate track, and Grassley has said he opposes giving Medicare that negotiation authority.

The Finance Committee’s timeline has slipped. Grassley had been trying to release a drug pricing bill by mid-June, but that date has now been pushed back to July.

The Senate Health Committee, which has its own package aimed at protecting patients from surprise medical bills along with other provisions, is moving at a faster pace, with a markup slated for Wednesday.

If the Finance Committee can reach a deal, that bill could be combined with the Health Committee package when it goes to the full Senate for a vote.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSticking points force stimulus package talks to spill into Sunday GOP drafting stimulus package without deal with Democrats Senate coronavirus stimulus talks spill into Saturday MORE (R-Tenn.), the Health Committee chairman, said Tuesday that he hopes his package, along with any health bills that could be added from the Finance or Judiciary committees, would get a vote on the Senate floor before the end of July.