Drug pricing talks heat up as Democrats work to win over skeptics

WASHINGTON — As drug pricing talks in Congress heated up this week, Democrats negotiated in earnest to get skeptics of their drug pricing policies on board.

With crunch time approaching for talks on a major legislative package containing the cornerstone of President Biden’s domestic agenda, drug pricing policy remained unresolved as lawmakers scramble to get consensus on a complicated, contentious issue. 

Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) is involved with the negotiations, said sources following the talks. 

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One key point of contention is whether negotiations should extend to drugs that cannot yet have generic competition because of patent protections, according to three sources. Another issue is how aggressive limits on drug price hikes should be, two sources said. 

Peters and four other House lawmakers had proposed a watered-down version of Medicare drug price negotiation that would apply only to drugs administered in physicians’ offices that have run the course of their patent protection. New drugs usually get 12 years of exclusive rights, but pharmaceutical companies often work to extend that time frame for particularly lucrative drugs.

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Peters told reporters on Thursday that “a lot of Senate offices” have called him to inquire about his drug pricing bill, but he declined to name who. Peters has been a major recipient of cash from drug makers this year, particularly after he fired a warning shot in the spring opposing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s preferred drug pricing plan. 

Peters’ office did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and a spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declined to comment. 

Advocates and progressive lawmakers are sounding the alarm that watering down proposals to the level Peters is aiming for would make the Medicare drug price negotiation policy moot.

“As they are steadily eviscerated, drug pricing provisions are being effectively excluded, rendered worthless for most Americans victimized by pharmaceutical price gouging,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), chair of the House Ways & Means health subcommittee in a written statement.

Watering down drug pricing policy also slashes the federal savings that lawmakers could use to pay for other policy priorities. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said the chance that Medicare negotiation policy could be dropped entirely is “very worrisome.”

“The question is, what can we salvage? Until the final deal is done I’m gonna keep pushing to get as much as we can,” Welch told STAT in a brief interview at the Capitol on Thursday.

Patients for Affordable Drugs, a consumer advocacy group advocating for aggressive drug pricing reform, decried Peters’ policy late Friday. A spokesperson said the scaled-back proposal would “rob Medicare negotiation legislation of its impact” and would leave patients exposed to high drug prices. 

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was adamant on Thursday that Democratic leaders are still pursuing a policy that would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, even as lawmakers are working to scale down the package to win more support. The dynamics in the Senate remain thorny as well, with several pharma-friendly senators demanding concessions from the plans Democrats had originally hoped to advance.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘Ron, is anybody going to give up negotiation?’ No way, period, full stop. Let’s have no confusion about it. We will not give up on negotiating,” Wyden told reporters in the Capitol.

Nicholas Florko contributed reporting to this story.

Source: STAT