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Long-Delayed Drug-Price Legislation Not Dead Yet, Grassley Says

June 1, 2020, 9:13 PM

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said that he intends to push for a vote this year on a bill that would limit drug-price increases, even as pharmaceutical companies race to find treatments and vaccines for Covid-19.

The drug industry has been pouring resources into researching new therapies as the pandemic wreaks havoc on Americans’ health and the country’s economy. That has helped quiet a long-running debate over rising prescription costs, as policy makers prioritize finding treatments and helping businesses safely re-open.

“There’s no better time to address this issue,” said Grassley, an Iowa Republican and a co-sponsor of the drug-price legislation, in an interview on Monday. Grassley pointed to the need to prepare for future pandemics and keep “bad actors” in the drug industry “from hiking prices astronomically” in future health crises.

If the bill doesn’t pass, Grassley worries drugmakers will charge “whatever they want to” for Covid-19 products.

“It will be the Wild West,” he said.

Grassley said he asked President Donald Trump last week in a closed-door meeting if the president was still interested in drug-pricing legislation given “the pandemic has taken the oxygen out of Washington.”

Trump, who has previously supported the bill, gave an “emphatic yes,” according to Grassley, who said he will meet with top leadership at the White House within days to hatch a plan for pushing forward.

The White House didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

Read More: Key Senate Republican Bucks McConnell to Push for Drug Pricing

Grassley said Trump’s support will be key as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to have some disagreements with the legislation, though House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi has signaled she is willing to engage the Senate Finance Committee in discussions on what comes next, Grassley said.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune said last week that lawmakers in both parties might be able to agree on a more-limited approach focused on costs under Medicare Part D, the prescription-drug benefit. But Thune said a broader bill is likely to fall by the wayside because it will be seen as too big a campaign issue.

“Both sides will end up using this issue in the election rather than focusing on getting a result before the election,” Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said during a videoconference hosted by Bloomberg Government.

Grassley said action to lower drug prices is critical for Senate Republicans to hold their majority in the chamber. Republicans currently hold 53 seats, and 23 are up for re-election.

“I think the main factor that’s going to drive this is, No. 1, the president, and No. 2, senators that are up for election, particularly ones in tough states, putting pressure on McConnell to bring this bill up,” Grassley said. “They’re going to need this if we’re going to keep a majority.”

Big Savings

Grassley said the pharmaceutical industry sees the pandemic as an opportunity to stymie Congressional efforts to tame drug prices.

“They’ve got the marketplace working exactly the way they want it,” Grassley said.

Steve Ubl, chief executive officer of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents the world’s largest drugmakers, said lawmakers have signaled a greater appreciation for an industry that’s “working around the clock” to combat the pandemic.

“Drug pricing discussions will come back around,” Ubl said, “and our focus will be on advancing a balanced discussion that lowers costs for patients and hopefully avoids some of the more draconian policies that we’ve seen debated.”

“Our industry is committed to making treatments accessible and affordable for those who need them -- including treatments for eradicating the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Brian Newell, a spokesman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “We look forward to continuing our work with policy makers on responsible reforms to lower what patients pay out of pocket for prescription drugs.”

In March, Grassley and Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, the ranking member on the Finance Committee, released an analysisfrom the Congressional Budget Office that found their prescription-drug bill would save taxpayers $95 billion over the next decade. Those savings will be all the more important in the wake of economic devastation caused by the pandemic, Grassley said.

--With assistance from Laura Litvan and Mario Parker.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Riley Griffin in New York at rgriffin42@bloomberg.net;
Emma Court in New York at ecourt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Timothy Annett at tannett@bloomberg.net

Rick Schine

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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