Worried time is running out, Democrats hope to rein in prescription drug costs
Legislation capping insulin costs for insured passed House, heads to uncertain fate in Senate
(L-R) Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Rep. Susie Lee and Sen. Jacky Rosen at an event in February 2022. (Photo: April Corbin Girnus)
Democrats are being pressed to do more to rein in prescription drug prices this year, while they still have a chance.
When speaking about efforts to lower prescription costs, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley admitted in a Senate Finance Committee in March the “difficulty of passing something like this in a Republican Congress,” adding, “If we want to reduce drug prices, then we need to do it now.”
“Sen. Grassley did say something pretty telling,” U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen said Tuesday. “He said the Republicans weren’t interested in voting on these things. The time is now while we’re here.”
Democratic control of both the House and the Senate could be jeopardized, particularly by inflation coupled with the traditional midterm-election voter backlash to the party that controls the White House.
Rosen and U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto spoke during a press conference Tuesday with AARP, which recently submitted a petition with 4 million signatures – 36,700 from Nevada – asking Congress to pass legislation to lower prescription drug prices.
The Build Back Better bill, which passed the House in November and has since stalled in the Senate, included provisions to cap the out-of-pocket costs of insulin at $35 a month and allowed Medicare to negotiate some drug prices in 2023.
The legislative package never had any Republican support, and opposition to key portions from two Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, effectively scrapped the legislation. However, both Manchin and Sinema have expressed willingness to consider prescription drug price reforms.
“Republicans already have prevented us from negotiating prescription drug costs under the previous administration with Republicans in control,” Cortez Masto said Tuesday. “We actually put forward a bipartisan package about lowering health care costs. One of the things we put forward was a vote on prescription drug negotiations, and Republicans refused to support it.”
Former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a Republican running to unseat Cortez Masto in the 2022 midterm elections, did not respond to questions about how the GOP plans to address rising costs of prescription drugs if Republicans win control of the Senate.
The American Independent reported that Laxalt owns stock in six separate pharmaceutical companies, including Johnson & Johnson and Gilead Sciences.
In an email, Sam Brown, another Republican running for Senate against Cortez Masto, said he does support “bipartisan action to lower drug prices for Americans through reforms that allow the private sector to fairly compete in the global market.”
“Congress should work to ensure reforms are implemented to lower healthcare and drug costs — including increased price transparency requirements from drug manufacturers,” he said.
At the same time, Brown called for “cutting burdensome regulations” on drug manufacturers, specifically citing a long approval process, “so that the private sector is incentivized to return production to America without increasing costs for consumers.”
During the press conference Tuesday, AARP Nevada’s volunteer state president Charlie Shepard implored lawmakers not to be scared by political pressure from pharmaceutical companies, telling lawmakers “don’t let pharma win.”
“Americans are fed up paying three times what people in other countries pay for the same drugs,” Shepard said. “There will never be a better time to lower drug prices than the historic opportunity in front of Congress. Now it’s time to get it done.”
Though efforts to pass a larger package to rein in rising costs have halted, lawmakers have carved out some of Build Back Better’s prescription drug measures as standalone legislation.
Democrats in both the House and Senate have introduced bills focusing on high costs of insulin.
The House voted 232-193 last week to limit the price of insulin to $35 for people with private insurance and Medicare. The cap doesn’t apply to people without insurance.
In an email, U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford said the solution is to get more people insured.
“It absolutely is a challenge for uninsured folks to get insulin for the lowered cost,” he said. “That’s why when this was in the Build Back Better Act, there were also significant investments in reducing the number of uninsured. Because if you’re diabetic, you have health care needs other than insulin — you need to see an endocrinologist, have cardiac issues, primary care, podiatrist, etc.”
Nevada Democratic Reps. Susie Lee and Dina Titus also supported the Affordable Insulin Now Act, part of unanimous support from House Democrats.
A dozen Republicans also voted for the bill, but not Nevada’s only Republican in Congress, Rep. Mark Amodei. In a statement, Amodei said the House measure was “yet another bill where Democrats could have a bipartisan solution with Republicans, but instead chose not to.”
“(The bill) would price-fix select insulin products at no more than $35 per month for every insurance plan in the nation, without regard for the different structuring each insurance plan has,” Amodei said. “This will inevitably lead insurance companies to pass the extra costs on to patients through increased premiums. Further, the bill doesn’t do anything to address manufacturing costs of insulin, and manufacturers can still raise prices without scrutiny.”
He instead pointed to the Republican-sponsored Lower Costs, More Cures Act, which Amodei said would “lower prescription costs for all drugs, including insulin, by supporting generic and biosimilar drugs’ entry into the marketplace.”
Five of the Republican sponsors for that bill voted for the Democrat proposal to cap out-of-pocket costs for insulin.
In Nevada, about 11% of the population – an estimated 254,570 people – have been diagnosed with diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.
The Affordable Insulin Now Act still has hurdles to overcome in the Senate, where it needs the support of at least 10 Republicans to overcome a filibuster.
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