Last Tuesday, two Democrats running for president promised to do — each by herself — what Washington has so far proven unable to do: lower the prices of prescription drugs.
Speaking during the last Democratic debate before the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said, if elected president, they would each act immediately to directly reduce the cost of certain drugs.
Their declarations, coming from two senators who have sponsored their own bills to control skyrocketing drug prices, stood out after Congress spent last year debating the problem — and failed to pass significant legislation to fix it.
“We need to get as much help to people as we can, as soon as possible,” Warren said.
While they did not elaborate on which presidential powers they would use, Warren and Klobuchar said the president already has the legal authority to rein in drug prices. (Klobuchar actually has a list of 137 things that she could do without congressional action that include but are not limited to action on drug pricing.)
A 2019 poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that, due to cost, about 29% of Americans had not taken a prescription as directed in the previous year.
Having proposed legislation that would empower the federal government to manufacture drugs itself, Warren said she would act to lower the price of insulin and drugs that treat HIV/AIDS.
Her campaign emailed reporters a list of other targeted drugs, including the EpiPen; Humira, the top-selling rheumatoid arthritis drug whose maker has been criticized for abusing patents to stifle competition; and naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.
Klobuchar and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, also endorsed empowering Medicare to negotiate lower prices with drugmakers — the proposal at the heart of the drug plan unveiled last year by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders.
However, that idea is deeply unpopular with congressional Republicans, who describe it as government interference in the free market. While the bill passed the House in December, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, has said he will not allow it to get a vote in the Senate, killing its chances, at least for now.
Klobuchar said the real problem is the number of pharmaceutical lobbyists on Capitol Hill — two to every member of Congress, she said. PolitiFact rated this claim Mostly True last year.
“How do we actually break the corporate stranglehold on our government so we can get any of these things passed?” said Tom Steyer, a businessman who was one of the six Democratic candidates to qualify for the debate.
The debate, which took place in Des Moines less than three weeks before voting begins, gave former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont another opportunity to spar over the cost of “Medicare for All,” albeit only briefly.
Elaborating on how he would pay for his single-payer overhaul of the nation’s health care system, Sanders said it would involve a 4% income tax, exempting the first $29,000 of a taxpayer’s income to ease the burden on “average family in America.”
“Now is the time to take on the greed and corruption of the health care industry, of the drug companies, and finally provide health care to all through a Medicare for All single-payer program,” Sanders said. “It won’t be easy. It’s what we have to do.”
“You can do it without Medicare for All,” Biden said. “You can get to the same place.”
After six debates spent parsing the details of Medicare for All, though, Warren referenced what comes next: a general election during which the Democratic nominee will run against President Donald Trump, a Republican who wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Warren said she would push her plan to expand coverage through a single-payer system — but also that she would defend the Affordable Care Act.
“I’ll take our side of the argument any day,” she said. “We’re going to beat him on this.”
The eighth debate is scheduled for Feb. 8, the first of three Democratic debates next month.