Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto discussing prescription drug legislation during a forum in Las Vegas Monday. (Photo: Michael Lyle)
U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is optimistic the Senate could soon hear legislation on capping insulin costs and reigning in prescription drug prices, she said in Las Vegas Monday.
But however quickly Senate Democrats act, the legislation will still need the support from 10 Senate Republicans.
The House in November passed legislation that included capping the out-of-pocket costs of insulin at $35 a month and allowing Medicare to negotiate some drug prices in 2023, provisions within the stalled Build Back Better bill. In March the House passed a separate stand-alone measure to cap insulin costs for private insurers and Medicare, which has the support of a dozen House Republicans.
With Democratic control of both the House and the Senate in jeopardy of being lost to Republicans during the midterm elections, many Democrats and advocates fighting for lower pharmaceutical costs worry the likelihood of reform will vanish with a GOP Congress.
“This is our next moment,” Cortez Masto responded when asked what the timeline would be for the Senate moving on its version of a prescription drug reform measure.
While she didn’t give an exact timeframe, she said the Senate had prioritized the confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, and lawmakers could turn attention back to the long-time priority of addressing prescription drug prices.
“We should all be working to do it together,” Cortez Masto said. “Nobody should be saying, ‘this doesn’t make sense.’ We all know this needs to be done. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat or independent. The focus is on lowering the costs for families and we should be doing it.”
Cortez Masto made her remarks during a roundtable meeting Monday that included residents who struggle to pay for basic needs, including rent, and afford medications such as insulin.
Jamie Tadrynski, a high school social studies teacher for the Clark County School District, has type 1 diabetes and still struggles with the cost of insulin and medical care.
“It’s frustrating to fight every month for medication that keeps me alive,” she said. “My rent just went up $300 a month. My insulin also went up $300 a month in the last two years. My test strips (to monitor glucose levels) have gone up. My copays at my doctors have gone up.”
She called the teachers health insurance benefits “insurance in name only” and often has to fight to get coverage.
“There are some months where I go, ‘well do I go to the pharmacy or do I pay my rent on time? Do I pay my car insurance on time? Do I buy groceries?,” Tadrynski said. “There are times when what I’ve had for dinner is sleep because sleep is free. I can’t afford to grocery shop and buy my insulin.”
She said she might have to leave Southern Nevada because she just can’t afford to live here and pay for costs associated with having diabetes.
“We are over 1,500 teachers short in the school district for many reasons,” she said. “One of the big reasons that no one likes to talk about is our health care is so poor.”
I don’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat or independent. The focus is on lowering the costs for families and we should be doing it. – Catherine Cortez Masto
I don’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat or independent. The focus is on lowering the costs for families and we should be doing it.
– Catherine Cortez Masto
“The federal government could play a role if we could stop playing politics around it and come together and focus on lowering those costs around health care,” she said.
Democrats originally proposed putting the Build Back Better bill, which made investments in climate policy and social spending including provisions reigning in drug costs, through the reconciliation process, a procedural move shielding it from a filibuster from Republicans, who all opposed the legislation.
It needed all 50 Democratic Senators on board.
But two Democratic Senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, opposed the legislation’s size, and Manchin said in December, after months of negotiations, that he would not support the bill.
Both have since expressed some willingness to consider prescription drug price reforms.
The Affordable Insulin Now Act passed the House 232-193 with 12 Republicans in favor. It does have some Republican support in the Senate, but it’s unclear whether it would be enough – 60 votes total – to overcome a filibuster.
Cortez Masto said her goal was to pass the more comprehensive bill.
“I do believe at the end of the day we can make it happen,” she said. “We are so close. We just have to get it across the finish line before the end of the year and this is our moment to get it done.”
While those in the room supported efforts to tackle insulin costs, they also said there is more to be done to tackle the financial strain imposed by health care.
One person questioned the effectiveness of allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices when private markets can still set rates.
“What I do know and what I’ve asked the experts is if we could get it done with Medicare, would that bleed into the private market, and they said yes it would,” Cortez Masto said. “It does bleed into the private market.”
In addition to facing obstacles in the Senate, legislation to curb costs faces stiff resistance from pharmaceutical companies.
Cortez Masto said the companies are fear-mongering.
“The minute you know the pharmaceutical companies are scared is when you start seeing the commercials saying your elected leaders are going to limit your access to your drugs and access to new drugs because they are limiting (research and development),” she said. “That’s when they are running scared. But they have money to put those commercials on, but not enough money to lower costs for everybody else. This is my biggest frustration.”
During past Senate committee hearings, Cortez Masto said companies told her “if you regulate us that will cut out costs of R&D.”
“I said, ‘Well stop doing the commercial. Take the money you’re putting into the commercials and put it into R&D,’” she said. “I didn’t grow up with all these crazy commercials. Let the doctors decide what’s best and appropriate. We don’t need to see it on TV and stop spending all that money on it. And by the way, the taxpayer dollars do pay for research and development.”
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