Washington – The U.S. House on Friday approved an ambitious bill that would dramatically lower the cost of popular drugs, like insulin and other commonly prescribed medications, for Medicare patients and other Americans.
All Connecticut House members voted for the bill, and three of them — Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Jahana Hayes, D-5th District — were original co-sponsors.
“People are skipping dosages and cutting pills in half just to try and square their wallets with their doctors’ orders,” Courtney said during debate on the bill. “Americans are being used as piggy banks by certain pharmaceutical manufacturers, and it’s time for it to end.”
“Americans are being used as piggy banks by certain pharmaceutical manufacturers, and it’s time for it to end.”
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney
Larson said a constituent from Wethersfield wrote him that “the cost of the Epi-Pen is outrageous. Even with my insurance it is so expensive, I couldn’t get the prescription filled and took my chances.” When the woman had an allergic reaction, Larson said, she called 911 because she lacked the expensive inhaler she needed.
“This is not how it should be in America,” he said.
The bill was approved on a 230-192 largely-party line vote — all Democrats voted to pass it, along with two Republicans.
During debate on the bill, Republican opponents said the legislation could inhibit innovation and reduce the number of drugs that enter the market, an argument that had been adopted by the nation’s pharmaceutical companies.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., for example, said he was diagnosed with cancer 16 months ago and is only alive today because of a new cancer-fighting drug that was “the result of significant investment by the private sector, not the government.”
“If H.R. 3 becomes law, stories like mine would be rare,” Upton said.
The bill’s supporters argued that prescription drug prices are skyrocketing and voters are demanding Congress act.
Hayes also spoke on the House floor urging her colleagues to support H.R. 3, saying patients in rural communities and 22,000 Connecticut residents diagnosed with cancer each year cannot wait for change.
“It is beyond unacceptable that families in my district and around the country are price-gouged at the pharmacy counter and forced to make the impossible decision to either pay for their medication or put food on their table,” Hayes said.
“It is beyond unacceptable that families in my district and around the country are price-gouged at the pharmacy counter and forced to make the impossible decision to either pay for their medication or put food on their table.”
U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes
H.R. 3, or the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act, named after the long-term Maryland lawmaker who died last month, is unlikely to get through the Senate. And the White House has announced that President Donald Trump would veto it if it came to his desk.
But parts of the bill have companions in the Senate and its most ambitious provision — allowing the federal government to negotiate prescription drug costs like private insurers do — has strong support among advocates for seniors, including the AARP.
The most controversial section of the bill would direct the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to directly negotiate with drugmakers on the price of medications covered under Medicare.
The government would use the cost of these drugs paid by patients in other countries – Australia, Canada, Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom, all of whom have government-run health care systems – to negotiate the prices of 250 popular medicines that have no generic competitors. The bill would penalize companies that do not negotiate with HHS with fines starting at 65% of a drug’s gross sales from the prior year.
The federal government is currently prohibited by a 2003 law to conduct these kinds of negotiations.
Savings wrought by negotiating lower Medicare drug prices – estimated to be about $450 billion over 10 years – would be used to add dental, vision and hearing coverage for Medicare recipients.
Private insurers could also benefit from the government’s negotiations with pharmaceutical companies.
The prices agreed on for Medicare drugs would be available to those insurers as well, although they could also negotiate for even lower prices.
“This is not just a Medicare bill,” Courtney said.
H.R.3 would also set a $2,000 annual limit on how much Medicare patients pay for prescription drugs. Currently there is no cap.
Another provision of the bill would require drug makers to give rebates back to the government if they raise the price of a Medicare drug faster than inflation. That provision is included in a bipartisan bill in the Senate and stands a better chance than others to become law.
“The Senate (rebate) bill is fine, but the problem of prescription drugs is so widespread,” Courtney said.
The prescription drug bill also includes a provision sponsored by Hayes that would provide $100 million in new grants to support mental health services in schools for children who have suffered trauma.
Progressive Democratic freshmen pushed for the passage of H.R. 3. But they did not get everything they wanted in negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, including expanding access to lower prescription drug prices for people who are uninsured.
Still, they all supported the bill.
“While we didn’t get everything we wanted, the changes we have negotiated over the past few months will bring relief to millions of Americans who would otherwise have been left out of this landmark legislation,” said Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis., in a joint statement.