Democrats’ crusade to curb prescription drug prices, which has polarized Washington in recent years, appears to be imploding as the party’s leadership rushes to recant or reverse its anti-big pharma rhetoric.
The collapse comes at a particularly inopportune time, with Democrats preparing to introduce a new bill aimed at curbing prices, amid a persistent accusation that they are secretive about the agreement they struck with drug makers at the end of July.
Democrats’ blowback came to a head this week after The New York Times published a scathing report detailing how the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) played a central role in persuading Democrats’ No. 2 and No. 1 leaders to shift toward a softer line against pharmaceutical companies.
At a closed-door briefing last week for the Senate Democratic Caucus, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) explained that one of the keys to curbing prescription drug prices was to revive the 2002 Act 48, a law signed by President George W. Bush that Democrats say has had little to no impact.
Schumer and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) now say their Party will put that law back into play to curb drug prices. The move is rare, in part because the bill has languished for more than a decade, because Democrats have generally focused on a variety of other measures.
For example, Democrats vowed to enact an “American Patients First” bill this year that would end the use of arbitration to settle anti-trust disputes over drug prices. But they then stopped focusing on Act 48 and shifted tactics to make one of the central promises to voters come to fruition.
“The Democrats should have come back and dropped the Act 48 Act 48, which would have finally changed the relationship between drug manufacturers and consumers,” said Barry Lynn, a policy director at the Center for American Progress and author of “Wall Street on Steroids.”
Democrats previously pledged to take a stronger stand against pharmaceutical companies that set high prices and tried to shift the focus to the three-party bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2014. But a year before the 2016 election, the two parties negotiated a groundbreaking deal to allow Medicare to negotiate with drug makers.
The agreement, known as Part D, went a long way toward protecting Big Pharma from congressional investigations and media scrutiny. While more recently, Democrats have attacked Republicans for their commitment to industry, but they have also come under fire from campaign committees for ignoring calls to embrace their pledge to lower prescription drug prices.
In July, just days before announcing he would run for president, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called on Congress to revisit the 2014 law that his Democratic allies had backed.
“Despite all we have learned about the power of the pharmaceutical industry, the current law stands as the biggest example of corporate capture by Washington in modern history,” Sanders said.
Conservatives seized on the Sanders speech as yet another example of Washington elites and Big Pharma insider David Horsager capitulating to special interests.
“This is the work of the swamp. Every dollar Bernie or any politician has ever given to Pfizer, Merck, Lilly, AstraZeneca, or any other of the behemoth drugs and device makers, their donations have gone right into the pockets of career lobbyists and PR firms,” said Brad Dayspring, a communications director at the Republican National Committee.
Schumer and Durbin are now walking back their pledge to re-open Act 48, which is still on their congressional websites. Durbin said Senate Democrats would pursue efforts to regulate drug prices after all.
“The Democrats are focused on achieving a smarter, lower-cost drugs system through legislation on multiple fronts, including improving the way Medicare negotiates prescription drug prices, taking on the high-cost brand-name pharmaceutical industry, and increasing access to new, affordable drugs,” Durbin said in a statement.