Partisan squabbles shadow Congress’ efforts to lower drug prices

It was supposed to be one of the few areas of bipartisanship.

Just after the midterm election, President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said they thought both parties could find common ground on lowering drug prices.

But that partnership has yet to manifest in the House. Instead, Republicans are accusing Democrats of shutting them out of developing legislation.

Complicating matters is the fact that Trump is pushing some proposals that many in his party may not like, such as tying the price of medications sold in the U.S. to their cost in other developed countries. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who is vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, has advanced a similar idea.

“The political dynamic we are seeing today is unprecedented,” said Ian Spatz, a senior advisor with Manatt Health, a consulting firm. There is “a Republican in the White House who has made drug prices an important agenda item, but he’s taking positions that are not traditionally Republican.”

One area that all sides agree on is making generic drugs more available. The Trump administration touted in its annual economic report Tuesday that the Food and Drug Administration sped up approvals of less expensive generic drugs, which saved consumers $26 billion in the first 18 months of Trump’s tenure.

House Democrats are also focusing on generic drugs, holding a hearing last week in the Energy & Commerce Health subcommittee on seven bills largely aimed at reducing prices by increasing competition from generic drugs.

These relatively small-scale bills steer clear of more controversial measures such as allowing Medicare to negotiate prices, permitting drug importation from Canada and banning drug makers from providing rebates. This makes them more likely to pass the House, but they’d fare better in the GOP-controlled Senate if they had the support of Republicans in the lower chamber.

Only three of the bills, however, have Republican co-sponsors. GOP committee leaders blasted their Democratic peers for only providing them with the legislation eight days before the hearing, and then giving them only a day to find potential co-sponsors.

“Regrettably, while Republicans share the goal of today’s hearing — lowering the cost of prescription drugs — the process has been anything but inclusive,” Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the committee’s Republican leader, said at the hearing.

Republicans say they are willing to work in a bipartisan way, but want a seat at the table, said Texas Rep. Michael Burgess, the GOP leader of the health subcommittee.

“Bipartisanship is asking for my input, not just for my vote,” he said at the hearing.

The subcommittee chair, Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, struck back, saying she is open to discussing the language of the bills.

Efforts are more collaborative in the Senate. On Friday, Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah joined with Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Dick Durbin of Illinois to reintroduce a bill aimed at increasing alternatives for drugs that may suffer shortages or have few competitors on the market.

Grassley, head of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, also teamed up this year with Klobuchar on legislation that would allow the importation of drugs from Canada. And they worked together last year on a bill that would limit drug companies’ ability to delay the introduction of generic versions of their medicines.

“We’ve got a good chance of having broad support for legislation out of this committee,” Grassley told reporters after last month’s hearing with several pharmaceutical company CEOs. “I expect to get something done. I expect that things are moving in our favor when you have broad bipartisan support like we do.”