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Democrats Punt on Drug-Pricing Overhaul in Virus Relief Measure

May 13, 2020, 3:16 PM

House Democratic leaders omitted drug pricing changes from a new, $3 trillion stimulus measure, signaling that coronavirus-related legislation won’t address a main policy priority of their caucus.

Some senior Democrats and consumer advocacy groups have sought to include in every one of the five coronavirus packages introduced in the House this year “anti-profiteering” language aimed at denying pharmaceutical companies exclusive rights to produce Covid-19 vaccines or treatments and measures to prohibit high prices for the medicines.

After the provisions were left out of this latest package (H.R. 6800), drafted by House Democrats without input from Republican leaders and unveiled Tuesday, drug industry critics said they’re worried Congress is pumping billions of federal dollars into research and efforts to spur the production of treatments and a vaccine for Covid-19 without price controls.

“While the 1,815 pages of this bill contain many excellent provisions, Big Pharma is unfortunately once again a big winner,” Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), chairman of the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee and a vocal proponent for drug pricing controls, said in a statement.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) speaks as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) left, listens during a House Ways and Means Committee markup.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Whether such reaction from members like Doggett who sought drug pricing overhaul will endanger its chances of passing the latest virus relief legislation in the House remains to be seen. The heads of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Tuesday asked House leaders to delay an expected Friday vote on the bill.

“Appropriating billions more to federal agencies for drug development without including reasonable pricing provisions, this bill would hand the drug industry a blank check and extend U.S. policy of making taxpayers pay twice for drugs,” Ben Wakana, executive director of Patients For Affordable Drugs Now, a pharmaceutical pricing advocacy group, said.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said she and other members saw the coronavirus packages as an “opportunity” to pass long-sought legislation to rein in the pharmaceutical industry. Schakowsky has led the effort to include provisions that would require drugmakers to disclose how much they spent on marketing and research as well as language to deny companies exclusive rights to sell Covid-related medicines. She said she expects her caucus will return to the issue later in the year.

‘Big-Scale Remedies’

“We will before long be doing some big-scale remedies to the problem of prescription drug costs,” Schakowsky said. “The idea was to stick close to the virus in this bill.”

Groups aligned with Democrats on the issue say efforts to include what they call “reasonable pricing” provisions in earlier coronavirus packages resulted in pushback from the pharmaceutical industry that’s left leadership wary of trying again.

The coronavirus-relief bill that House leadership calls the “Heroes Act” would end cost-sharing for treatments related to Covid-19 for people with public and private insurance, effectively making medicines to combat the virus and symptoms of the disease it causes free for the insured. The bill also includes a price-gouging provision aimed at cracking down on companies that dramatically raise prices for goods amid the pandemic.

While some Democrats are pointing to these measures as meaningful efforts to ensure Americans can afford treatment for Covid, Doggett said without cost-controls the pharmaceutical companies could price therapies exorbitantly high.

“Guaranteed coverage for necessary drugs with no guaranteed reasonable pricing agreement means that Big Pharma can charge whatever it wants as consumers ultimately pay the price with even higher premiums,” he said. “And no protection is afforded the tens of millions of uninsured individuals.”

The price-gouging provision additionally considers a company to be unfairly pricing a product when it raises the cost to a level higher than the same or similar good. The provision takes into account the costs incurred by the company to produce or sell it. This means it wouldn’t likely apply to new medicines developed for Covid-19, like GileadSciences Inc.‘s Remdesivir, said Stacie Dusetzina, an associate professor of health policy at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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