POLITICS

Joe Biden Will Call For Drug Price Legislation In His Address To Congress

His economic plan doesn't mention it, but White House officials say he will be specific Wednesday about what he wants -- and when.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday night will ask Congress to pass legislation giving the federal government power to negotiate prescription drug prices, a White House official told HuffPost.

And Biden will make clear he wants the legislation this year, the official said.

Biden will make the call during a speech, his first address to a joint session of Congress, in which he will lay out the substance and thinking of his broader economic agenda. It will come amid worries from prominent Democrats that Biden might be giving prescription drug legislation lower priority, even though it’s a longtime cause for the party.

The reason for the concern is that the White House is also releasing a policy blueprint on Wednesday, in advance of the speech, and the blueprint is nearly silent on prescription drugs. But the speech will include a firm rhetorical commitment, according to the White House official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity.

Biden’s economic agenda, parts of which he introduced in late March, includes everything from traditional infrastructure projects to federally financed child care and paid leave. The total cost is expected to exceed $3 trillion over 10 years ― a massive sum but one that is now within the realm of political possibility in part because the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on the economy have exposed so many pressing needs.

Among those is the need for help Americans with their health care costs, especially high prescription drug prices. Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign promised to seek legislation to reduce those prices by having the government use its leverage with drug manufacturers through the Medicare program. But at some point in the last few weeks, the administration decided not to include a proposal on drug prices in the new policy blueprint.

As word of that decision circulated, thanks to media reports in The Washington Post, The New York Times and other news outlets, Democratic lawmakers began firing off letters to the White House asking Biden to reaffirm his commitment in clear, concrete terms. In response, White House officials tried to assure Democrats that prescription drugs remained important to him.

They did so again during a Tuesday evening briefing call for reporters, when a senior official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Biden has “been very, very clear that he remains committed to negotiations to reduce prescription drug prices, and you will hear him reiterate [it] as a very top priority, something he deems urgent.”

It was shortly after that briefing session that the other official reached out to HuffPost and offered an added statement: “The President remains committed to working to reduce drug prices for Americans. In the President’s address, he will call on Congress to act this year by allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.” 

Why Democrats Are So Focused On Drug Prices

The widespread assumption around Washington is that, with the possible exception of some physical infrastructure spending, most of the legislation Biden wants can pass only on party-line Democratic votes through the budget “reconciliation” process, in which Republicans cannot block bills with the threat of a filibuster.

Although neither Biden nor congressional leaders have specified exactly how they will package proposals and pass them, most likely there will be one or two sprawling pieces of legislation with a whole bunch of worthwhile initiatives vying for inclusion. The ones that make it are likely to be the ones Biden considers more important, most feasible or both ― and on prescription drugs, the politics are inevitably complex. 

The governments of nearly all developed countries negotiate directly with manufacturers over prices, in one way or another. Giving the U.S. government similar power is wildly popular, according to polls, in no small part because the relatively high cost of prescriptions here is such a burden on so many Americans. 

But drug companies and their allies argue that giving the federal government more sway over prices would reduce innovation that leads to breakthrough treatments on cancer, COVID-19 and more. The industry also has one of the most powerful, well-financed advocacy operations in American politics.

One reason Democrats think they can overcome that opposition now is that, two years ago, House Democrats passed H.R. 3, the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act, after lengthy negotiations between leadership and the progressive wing. 

Getting that bill back through the House now will not be easy, given smaller Democratic majorities, and pushing prescription drug legislation through the Senate could be even more difficult. 

But if Democrats can pass H.R. 3, or something that has a similar effect, that would create opportunities to do much more on health care because lower drug prices would mean less federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid, freeing up funding that could go to other initiatives.

At Tuesday night’s background briefing, the senior White House official noted the importance of negotiating drug prices because “you’re also generating revenue that can be applied to both expanding coverage to those places in the country that have coverage gaps still but also expanding the benefits of Medicare itself.” 

That sounded like a reference to two of several ideas now under discussion: offering new forms of cheap or free insurance to low-income people in states that have not expanded Medicaid eligibility, and adding vision care, dentistry and hearing benefits to Medicare. 

White House officials would not say whether Biden would mention these or any other specific priorities in his speech.

But the policy blueprint does spell out one idea: making permanent some temporary improvements to the Affordable Care Act that will reduce premiums and out-of-pocket costs for millions of people buying insurance on their own rather than through employers.