Congress may be close to lowering prescription drug prices

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The Senate is close to a vote on allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices

Senate Democrats say they have the votes to pass legislation that would almost certainly lower prescription drug prices. Lawmakers could vote within days on a bill giving Medicare the power to negotiate prescription drug prices.

The issue of prescription drug costs has taken on added urgency amid rising inflation. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s latest tracking poll shows that 95% of Democrats, 82% of Independents, and 71% of Republicans are in favor of legislation to reduce drug costs.

As the largest customer of prescription drugs, Medicare would be able to negotiate for lower prices. As it now stands, Medicare – and other prescription drug plans – pay whatever drug companies charge.

GOP opposition

Pharmaceutical companies and Republican lawmakers have opposed the legislation for years, and little has changed. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is leading the opposition to the current proposal.

In a speech on the Senate floor, McConnell said the Democrats’ bill would reduce the research and development that often leads to new breakthrough medicine.

“Arbitrary, top-down government price controls would dry out the wells of American innovation to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars in lost research and development,” McConnell said. “And American patients would feel the pain. The cost of breakthrough cures is measured in dollars, but the cost of neglecting them would be measured in lost years of American life.”

Democrats appear unified

Democrats have made some concessions in the legislation to help ensure its passage in a Senate that is equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. Under the current proposal, Medicare could only negotiate prices on drugs that have been on the market for a certain length of time. 

For most drugs, that period would be nine years. For complex biologic drugs, price negotiation would take place only after the drug has been on the market for 13 years. The measure would also impose a 95% tax on pharmaceutical companies that refuse to negotiate with the government.

“This is something we’ve waited for for a very long time and is going to be a major, major accomplishment to help people, bring down inflation,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Schumer is confident because moderate Democrats in the Senate, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), have signaled their support. If all 50 Republicans vote against the measure and all 50 Democrats vote in favor, Vice President Kamala Harris would cast the tie-breaking vote to ensure its passage.

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