Grassley gambles on drug price bill despite GOP doubts
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is pushing forward with a bipartisan deal to lower drug prices this week despite objections from some members of his own party and a tough road ahead.
The Finance Committee will vote on the deal between Grassley and Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the panel’s top Democrat, on Thursday, setting up a closely watched vote for Republican senators.
Many GOP senators are objecting that the plan is too close to price controls for drugs, which Republicans have traditionally opposed.
The concerns from within the GOP ranks make it less likely that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will bring the bill up for a vote in the full Senate, given he has been reluctant to vote on issues that split his caucus, particularly with a presidential election approaching.
But the announcement from Grassley and Wyden of a deal on Tuesday is a step forward, and the White House made favorable comments on Tuesday, which could help ease GOP lawmakers’ concerns.
The bill’s most contentious measure imposes a new limit on price increases in Medicare’s prescription drug program, called Part D, forcing drug companies to pay money back if prices rise faster than inflation. The measure also caps Medicare beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket costs.
GOP lawmakers could face a tough decision.
In a negative sign for the deal’s chances, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, told reporters Tuesday he has concerns with the new limits on price increases in saying they are a departure from “free market forces.”
“I suspect I’m not the only one who [has] concerns,” Thune said.
But in a positive sign, the White House praised the measure.
“We will work with Senators to ensure this proposal moves forward and advances the President’s priority of lowering drug prices even further and increasing transparency in healthcare for the benefit of all Americans,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere.
Grassley is touting the analysis of the measure from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to try to win over Republican senators.
The CBO found that the measure will save taxpayers more $100 billion over a 10-year period. It will also lower out of pocket costs for Medicare beneficiaries by $27 billion and lower premiums by $5 billion according to the CBO.
“I think it’s moving in a positive direction,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “The CBO score was certainly encouraging.”
But other GOP senators sounded a less positive note.
“I still have some concerns, but I hope we can work it out,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). Asked if he could vote for it on Thursday, Roberts said, “We’ll see.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) also said he wants changes.
Grassley’s bill can also expect fierce pushback from drug companies, who have long been a powerful force in Washington.
Drug companies staunchly oppose the deal, and the pharmaceutical lobby was whipping votes against the deal on Tuesday, industry lobbyists said.
Steve Ubl, the CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, warned that the measure would impose “price controls” and siphon billions of dollars away from research and development by drug companies.
President Trump’s attention to the bill will be a key factor. If he leans in and pressures McConnell to bring it up for a vote, it would improve the measure’s chances.
Trump has made lowering drug prices a priority and opened the door to working with Democrats on the issue. The administration’s own efforts to lower drug costs have seen mixed results, leaving the president and allies eager for a legislative win on the issue.
But there will be competition for Trump’s support, in particular from a rival drug pricing bill in the House.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office said Monday that it will unveil House Democrats’ own drug pricing bill in September.
That measure will go farther than the Senate bill by allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, a measure that has long been a top priority for Democrats but that is largely opposed by Republicans.
Pelosi aide Wendell Primus said Monday that he is “still very optimistic” that Trump will sign on to what House Democrats are working on.
In the upper chamber, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) are also working on their own package to lower health care costs.
Trump’s support is far from assured, though, and getting either the House bill or a Senate bill through the full upper chamber will be an extremely tough task.
There is also pressure from the left, especially in the House, to make the efforts even stronger.
In the Senate, progressive Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said the Grassley–Wyden deal is “a start” but said he would like it to go further.
“It’s a start, but you can’t do this right unless you have direct negotiation with the drug companies,” Brown said Tuesday.
“I think they’re making progress. I appreciate the work Wyden did on the bill, I think Grassley made some progress here,” he continued. “But I’m going to look at it and understand it better.”