Biden taps Bernie Sanders to help push drug pricing campaign

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is expected to join President Biden at the White House podium on Wednesday, and the president hopes the fiery senator can help tap into popular frustrations against pharmaceutical companies and push for a campaign on drug prices ignored by many. American people.

Biden and Sanders plan to discuss their joint efforts to reduce the out-of-pocket cost of inhalers for tens of millions of Americans who rely on the devices to treat asthma and other conditions, speaking to an audience of about 75 health policy experts and advocates. . , according to White House officials who previewed the comments. Wednesday’s event is part of a broader campaign by Biden, in an election year, to highlight Democrats’ efforts to lower drug prices, including a law that limits out-of-pocket costs for seniors to $2,000. a month starting next year and a Federal Trade Commission crackdown on pharmaceutical industry patents that they say have stifled competition.

“We are working very closely with the White House,” said Sanders, chairman of the Senate health committee, adding that he is crafting legislation to expand the $2,000 out-of-pocket limit to all Americans.

Polls have shown that most voters are unaware of Democrats’ efforts to lower drug prices, prompting a flurry of administration speeches, press releases and trips by officials to swing states, and now the speech Biden’s joint with Sanders.

The two men — old Senate colleagues, former political rivals and now allies in the effort to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office — have made drug prices a centerpiece of their 2024 policy agendas, taking approaches which, according to Sanders, are complementary.

Biden, who is running for re-election, has touted his far-reaching efforts under the Inflation Reduction Act to cap insulin costs for Medicare patients at $35 a month, reduce the cost of medications for some Medicare patients and subsidize drug spending for low-income seniors. But the law’s effects on drug prices remain largely theoretical for many voters; A plan for the government to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies faces court challenges and is still years away from being fully implemented.

Sanders has taken a more granular approach: naming and shaming individual pharmaceutical companies and executives, using his powers as Senate committee chairman to threaten them with hearings and subpoenas. The efforts have helped produce tangible results. Sanders and his colleagues pressured three pharmaceutical companies to limit the out-of-pocket cost of inhalers to $35 a month (compared to several hundred dollars a month), an achievement Biden plans to tout at the White House, tying it to the repression of his administration. on inhaler patents. But targeting individual companies is not easy to apply across the vast pharmaceutical industry, and industry experts say companies are making concessions to Sanders that do not address the main drivers of disproportionately high drug prices in the United States.

“Caps don’t solve all the problems, but they certainly will benefit a large number of asthma and (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) patients who rely on inhalers,” said William Feldman, a pulmonologist and health policy researcher at the School of Medicine. Harvard, which has studied the high costs of the devices and spoke with Sanders’ team.

Feldman added that pharmaceutical companies that recently agreed to reduce inhaler costs for patients will continue to charge much more from insurance companies, among other concerns. “There are still very expensive (inhalers) that don’t have generic competition,” he said.

Republicans have attacked some of Biden’s efforts to fix drug prices, with the influential House Republican Study Committee calling for repealing provisions they say will impede research and development, and Trump has argued that he is in the best position to face the industry. As president, Trump issued executive orders designed to control pharmaceutical prices and pledged to resume those efforts on his first day in office if he is elected, including resurrecting orders blocked or revoked by Biden. One of those planned orders would require drug companies to give their “most favored nation pricing” to the United States.

“Under my policy, the US government will tell Big Pharma that we will only pay the best price they offer to foreign nations, who have been taking advantage of us for so long; America is tired of being ripped off,” Trump said. he said in a campaign video released last year. “Biden canceled my tough pharmaceutical policies the moment he had the chance.”

Politicians have been promising for years to combat high drug prices, a constant concern for voters of both political parties. More than half of Democrats and Republicans said they were worried about prescription drug costs, according to a February survey by KFF, a nonpartisan research organization. But Biden’s changes to drug prices have not resonated with many Americans. About three-quarters of adults were unaware of the Inflation Reduction Act’s provisions to limit insulin costs and out-of-pocket expenses for seniors, according to a November KFF survey; about two-thirds did not know that the law requires the government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies. Most Americans age 65 and older were also unaware of the law’s provisions.

“It’s a messaging problem,” said Ashley Kirzinger, associate director of public opinion and polling research at KFF, who said she was particularly surprised given the decades-long bipartisan goal of addressing drug prices. “It was such a high priority for seniors… the fact that they are still behind in awareness really stands out to me.”

Trump allies have argued that Democrats are focusing on health care because voters generally favor Republicans on many issues, including the economy, immigration and crime.

“Biden doesn’t have much to draw on,” said Joe Grogan, who headed the Domestic Policy Council in the Trump White House. “They hope that health care will be a strength for them, but I actually think it will be a vulnerability if the case is prosecuted effectively.”

Sanders and Biden find common ground

Wednesday’s White House summit comes nearly five years after Sanders and Biden began battling for the Democratic presidential nomination, offering different prescriptions for how to fix the health care system. While Sanders supported Medicare for All, a universal health care program that would abolish private health insurance and make other major changes, Biden called the plan politically unworkable and said he would instead build on the country’s existing infrastructure, such as by expanding the protections. in the Affordable Care Act.

The fight dragged on for more than nine months over 10 debates, with Sanders arguing that Medicare for All would help rein in high drug costs by forcing drug companies to negotiate with the government.

The two men continued to disagree over health policy after Biden entered the White House and Sanders became chairman of the Senate health committee two years later. Last summer, Sanders delayed Biden’s nomination of a director for the National Institutes of Health, saying he was dissatisfied with progress in reducing drug prices, and warned the president that he would block other candidates who were not prepared. to “stand up and fight.” “The pharmaceutical industry.

“President Biden is the first president in my memory, at least in my lifetime, who actually has the courage to stand up to the industry,” Sanders said in an interview Tuesday.

As Biden and Sanders battled for the Democratic nomination, Trump launched his own efforts to fix drug prices, issuing executive orders to target insulin costs, importing drugs from other countries, and tying U.S. drug prices to prices. lower abroad.

Those efforts continued even after Trump lost re-election.

“Pharmaceutical companies are going crazy running nasty ads against me,” Trump wrote on social media in December 2020. “They don’t want America to have the lowest drug prices in the world, but now we will. Big reductions are coming. “No other politician would do this!!!”

Trump’s orders were mostly blocked by courts or overturned by the Biden administration. Sanders dismissed Trump’s efforts as empty rhetoric.

“Donald Trump, in fact, talked a lot, campaigned a lot, about the high cost of prescription drugs,” Sanders said. “But he didn’t achieve anything.”

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