The pharmaceutical industry is on the verge of defeating a major Democratic proposal that would allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can afford only three defections when the House votes on a sweeping $3.5 trillion spending package, but Reps. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) and Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) last week voted to block the drug pricing bill from advancing out of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) voted against advancing the tax portion of the legislation in the House Ways and Means Committee.
All told, the number of House Democrats who have concerns about the drug pricing bill is in the double digits, and several Democrats in the 50-50 Senate would not vote for the measure in its current form, according to industry lobbyists.
The holdouts mark a sharp contrast to just two years ago, when every House Democrat voted for the same drug pricing bill, underscoring the inroads pharmaceutical manufacturers have made with the caucus on a measure that would narrow corporate profit margins.
“The House markups on health care demonstrate there are real concerns with Speaker Pelosi’s extreme drug pricing plan and those concerns are shared by thoughtful lawmakers on both sides of the aisle,” the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the industry’s top trade group, said in a statement following the committee votes.
The reversal follows the industry’s multimillion-dollar ad campaigns opposing the bill, timely political donations and an extensive lobbying effort stressing drugmakers’ success in swiftly developing lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines.
The bill at the center of the fight, H.R. 3, would allow Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs by tying them to the lower prices paid by other high-income countries. The measure is projected to free up around $700 billion through the money it saves on drug purchases — covering a big chunk of the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending plan.
Drugmakers say the measure would reduce innovation, pointing to a Congressional Budget Office estimate that found it would lead to nearly 60 fewer new drugs over the next three decades.
Peters and other Democrats have proposed an alternative bill that would limit price negotiation to a fraction of the prescription drugs included in H.R. 3, focusing instead on drugs like insulin, the diabetes treatment that has seen its price rise dramatically over the last decade. The alternative measure also would set a yearly out-of-pocket spending limit for lower-income Medicare recipients.
The proposal foreshadows a less aggressive drug pricing compromise that uneasy Senate Democrats are more likely to get behind.
“You’re going to see something pass, but it probably won’t be H.R. 3,” said a lobbyist who represents pharmaceutical companies.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers oppose any efforts to control the price of prescription drugs, but the alternative bill is more favorable to the industry than the broader Democratic bill.
“Any kind of artificial price controls will have an impact on both new scientific investment as well as access to medicines,” said Rich Masters, chief public affairs and advocacy officer at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a trade group that represents pharmaceutical giants such as Sanofi, Merck and Johnson & Johnson.
“We appreciate the focus on patient out of pocket costs, which we know is a critical component to any reform efforts and something that BIO and our member companies have long supported,” he added.
Progressive lawmakers, who have long bemoaned rising drug prices, blasted the three House Democrats who voted to block H.R. 3, saying they succumbed to industry donations and lobbying efforts.
“What the pharmaceutical industry has done, year after year, is pour huge amounts of money into lobbying and campaign contributions … the result is that they can raise their prices to any level they want,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a video message Friday.
The pharmaceutical industry spent $171 million on lobbying through the first half of the year, more than any other industry, to deploy nearly 1,500 lobbyists, according to money-in-politics watchdog OpenSecrets. That’s up from around $160 million at the same point last year, when the industry broke its own lobbying spending record.
Peters announced his opposition to Pelosi’s drug pricing proposal in May and shortly after was showered with donations from pharmaceutical industry executives and lobbyists, STAT News reported.
Peters is the No. 1 House recipient of pharmaceutical industry donations this year, bringing in $88,550 from pharmaceutical executives and PACs, according to OpenSecrets. Over his congressional career, Peters has received in excess of $860,000 from drugmakers, more than any other private industry.
The California Democrat told The Hill last week that accusations of his vote being guided by donations are “flat wrong” and noted that his San Diego congressional district employs roughly 27,000 pharmaceutical industry workers consisting mostly of researchers.
“It’s always going to be the attack because it’s simple and it’s easier than engaging on the merits,” he said.
Schrader received nearly $615,000 from the industry. He inherited a fortune from his grandfather, a former top executive at Pfizer, and had between $50,000 and $100,000 invested in Pfizer, in addition to other pharmaceutical holdings as of last year, according to his most recent annual financial disclosure.
Schrader tweeted last week that he is “committed to lowering prescription drug costs,” while arguing that the House bill would not pass the Senate in its current form.
Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) another supporter of Peters’s more industry friendly bill, received an influx of pharmaceutical donations in recent months, including a $2,000 check from Pfizer’s PAC in mid-August, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
In meetings with lawmakers, lobbyists have argued that now is not the time to go after drugmakers, which developed highly effective COVID-19 vaccines and are developing booster shots and other treatments to fight the virus.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents several major pharmaceutical manufacturers, said last month that Democratic drug pricing efforts will leave the U.S. “unprepared for the next public health crisis.”
PhRMA last week launched a seven-figure ad campaign to oppose H.R. 3. That’s after pharmaceutical groups and conservative organizations bankrolled by drugmakers spent $18 million on ads attacking the proposal through late August, according to an analysis from Patients for Affordable Drugs, a group that launched its own ads backing H.R. 3 last week.
The ad buys are meant to sway both lawmakers and the general public. A June Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 90 percent of Americans approve of the drug pricing measure, but that support dropped to 32 percent when they were told that the proposal “could lead to less research and development of new drugs.”