Many issues that were top of mind only a few months ago have been sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic, its economic fallout, and social unrest related to police brutality and racial inequality. As a co-author of bipartisan legislation to reduce prescription drug prices, I can tell you that receding media attention is doing the American people a disservice. Congress must not let events serve as an excuse for doing nothing about drug prices. This is the time to address the crisis of health-care affordability.
President Trump campaigned in 2016 on bringing affordability and fairness to the prescription drug market. In May 2018, he called on lawmakers to pass an overhaul of the drug pricing system. Democrats went on to win the House later that year, largely on issues like health-care affordability. If leaders in both parties recognize the system is broken, why isn’t it being fixed? Three reasons: a bipartisan lack of political courage, an unwillingness to compromise, and a powerful lobby with deep pockets.
After Independence Day, Congress will likely consider another coronavirus relief package. As the Senate’s most senior Republican, I’ll be pushing to include the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act, which I introduced with Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.). So far more than 127,000 Americans have died from Covid-19. As drugs to treat the disease emerge, health-care affordability should be central to the conversation.
This bipartisan bill would cap Medicare beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket costs at $3,100 annually and allow payments to be spread out over a year. Over 10 years, these and other changes would save seniors and Americans with disabilities $72 billion in out-of-pocket costs and reduce premiums by $1 billion. The bill would save taxpayers nearly $100 billion over the same period—a rare source of budget savings in an era of trillion-dollar deficits. The Congressional Budget Office found that the bill’s spillover effects would also save money for Americans in the commercial health market.
Negotiations and the introduction of the bill were bipartisan. As the lead Republican author, I’ve worked to persuade senators on my side to get on board. At this year’s State of the Union address, the president also endorsed our work.
Unfortunately, over the past couple of months, Democrats have left the negotiating table. Democratic colleagues tell me this was a decision made by their party’s leadership. I can only assume the Democratic Party would rather use the issue of drug prices as a political hammer in November’s election than work to address it now. Perhaps they hope to pass more left-leaning legislation next year, if they win more power. Meanwhile, Americans will die who otherwise would have been able to afford lifesaving medicines. All for an election-year talking point.
The Democrats have also miscalculated. Passing legislation currently requires bipartisanship, and that is unlikely to change in the next Congress. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I’m in a strong position to help shepherd a bill across the finish line right now. But my term as chairman will lapse at the end of this Congress, and Democrats won’t find a more willing partner to work with next year. Delay now may doom any effort to lower prescription drug prices for years to come.
Democrats aren’t the only ones to blame. Big Pharma has friends on both sides of the aisle, and some of my colleagues prefer talk to action when it comes to lowering prescription drug prices. The new narrative is that efforts to lower prescription drug prices are rendered moot by the pandemic. But voters aren’t buying it. This month, a Gallup poll found nearly 9 in 10 U.S. adults are “concerned that the pharmaceutical industry will leverage the Covid-19 pandemic to raise drug prices.” That includes 94% of Democrats, 87% of independents and 84% of Republicans. Congress has an opportunity to allay these fears.
Under current law, there is nothing to stop bad actors in the pharmaceutical industry from hiking prices and gouging victims of this pandemic or the next. Big Pharma says now is no time for action, but for them it is never a good time. They opposed reform before and they oppose reform now. The pandemic is merely a convenient excuse to avoid accountability for decades of skyrocketing prices.
Unlike the partisan reform efforts in the House that have no path to success, the bipartisan Senate bill wouldn’t have a negative effect on the creation of new, lifesaving drugs. That is because it would maintain the market forces that encourage research and development by allowing pharmaceutical companies to recoup the cost of bringing new drugs to market. Financial incentives to innovate wouldn’t be affected.
Drug costs may have fallen off the radar in Washington, but the problem didn’t go away. The insulin-dependent grandmother didn’t stop needing her medication because of coronavirus. The father with debilitating arthritis who relies on Humira didn’t suddenly become able to afford treatment. In fact, coronavirus is especially lethal for the elderly and the poor, and tens of millions of Americans are newly unemployed. The pandemic didn’t derail the need to lower drug prices; if anything, it has exposed how urgent affordable prescription drugs are to public health, the economy and the American way of life.
Congress must act now to reduce prescription drug prices. Republicans who sit on their hands are throwing the taxpayers we claim to champion under the bus. Democrats who sit on their hands until after the election are endangering sick and low-income Americans for political gain.
Mr. Trump recently told my colleagues and me that lowering the price of prescription drugs remains a priority. The president should use his bully pulpit and demand lower drug prices in the next coronavirus bill. Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer must put politics aside to bring up the issue for debate. And Nancy Pelosi must recognize that this may be her only chance to pass reform as House speaker.
Trying times have never been an excuse for Congress to dawdle. For years, Republicans and Democrats across the ideological spectrum have promised to lower prescription drug prices. The time to act is now. The American people have waited long enough.
Mr. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, is the U.S. Senate’s president pro tempore and chairman of the Finance Committee.