The script Wednesday was familiar, one that Sen. Richard Blumenthal has reliably followed over his long career on the political stage. Standing with AARP allies, he skewered pharmaceutical companies and demanded that Congress act to lower Medicare drug costs.
“There’s nothing more important to seniors, there’s nothing more important to American consumers, than lowering prescription drug prices and stopping the astronomical rise in costs of health care,” said Blumenthal, standing outside his office across from the Old State House in downtown Hartford.
His position is unchanged from his first days in the Senate. He warned in 2011 that spending on prescription drugs was on track to double in the next decade. Medicare spending on drugs actually would triple.
An unintended consequence of Blumenthal’s consistent advocacy for Congress to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices is that it underscores nothing has happened on the issue since the Democrat’s election to the U.S. Senate nearly a dozen years ago.
It raises a question: At what point does advocacy without results become a liability?
“This fight is worth having,” Blumenthal replied. “As I said at the beginning, nothing is more important to Americans than health and affordable medicine. I can’t promise we’re going to win the fight. But I can promise and pledge that we’re gonna fight as long and hard as necessary.”
The question has a special relevance for the 76-year-old Blumenthal as he seeks reelection to a third term in an especially unsettled time for incumbents.
A Gallup poll finds that 76% of Americans disapprove how the Congress does its job, which is hardly new. But a Quinnipiac University poll last week showed Blumenthal barely above water in his approval rating, unfamiliar territory for the state’s senior senator.
Forty-five percent approved of Blumenthal’s performance, while 43% disapproved.
It was the worst showing in the history of Quinnipiac’s polling for the senator, who has commanded unrivaled media attention for more than three decades as a crusading consumer advocate, first as attorney general and now as a senator.
“Polls rise and fall. My focus is on fighting for Connecticut and working as hard as I can,” said Blumenthal, who waved off further questions about his approval rating. “That’s really all I’m going to say.”
Quinnipiac asked no horse-race questions matching Blumenthal against Themis Klarides, Peter Lumaj or Leora Levy, the trio competing for the GOP nomination in a primary. An Emerson College poll conducted for WTNH showed Blumenthal with leads of 10 points over Klarides and 16 points over Lumaj and Levy.
Republicans have not won a Connecticut contest for the U.S. Senate since 1982 or the U.S. House since 2006.
Democrats remain confident that Blumenthal will retain his seat, but many privately concede that the Quinnipiac poll and national surveys are harbingers of a restive electorate, signs that high name recognition and other perks of incumbency are no guarantee of what typically has been an easy path.
With Senate rules requiring a super majority to proceed on most debates, the evenly divided Senate has been a graveyard for the scores of bills passed by the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, including measures favored by Blumenthal on drug pricing.
The Pentagon and the Veterans Administration negotiate drug prices, as do private health insurers. VA patients pay about 50% less for brand-name drugs and 70% less for generics than those under Medicare, Blumenthal said.
But the politically powerful Big Pharma industry succeeded in stopping Medicare from exercising its much larger purchasing power by explicitly banning it from negotiating on price since the advent of Medicare drug coverage in 2006.
“I’m not condemning private enterprise. I believe in capitalism. But there are some areas where capitalism requires negotiation,” Blumenthal said. “The essence of a free capitalist economy is that two sides negotiate the prices. To ban negotiation is fundamentally un-American.”
Novlette Williams, 68, of West Hartford was one of the half-dozen AARP volunteers joining Blumenthal. She said she once refused a prescription for her congestive heart failure that was going to cost $500.
“And when they told me I had to pay that money, I walked out,” she said. “I told the pharmacist, ‘Well, you know what, I’ll just go home and die.’ Because I could not afford it.”
She eventually obtained the prescription after the office of U.S. Rep. John B. Larson and her doctor helped find coupons that brought down the cost.
Anna Doroghazi, a policy director for AARP, said Medicare recipients shouldn’t have to rely on such intervention to afford life-saving prescriptions.
The AARP volunteers said they were not discouraged by the long fight to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
Barbara Munck, 69, of North Haven noted the many policy advances, such as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, that prohibited gender discrimination in any program that receives federal funding. It opened a new era of opportunity for girls and women, particularly in athletics.
“You have to keep that conversation going,” Williams said.
Blumenthal said Wednesday that Democrats hope to use the budget-reconciliation process to end the ban on Medicare negotiating drug prices. Like a budget resolution, a reconciliation bill cannot be filibustered and requires only a simple majority for passage, not the 60 votes.
Aware of the long history of futility, the senator made no promises.
“I’m not minimizing the difficulties. I’m not saying it’s a slam dunk. Just the opposite — it’s an uphill fight,” Blumenthal said. “But we need the American people to know we are fighting it, because their awareness will be critical support for this as we move forward.”
The talks about the reconciliation bill are ongoing, he said.