Democrats refocus attention on drug prices after Oregon primary reshuffle

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Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader has long been a trusted ally of the pharmaceutical industry in an increasingly hostile Democratic Party.

As dozens of House colleagues pushed for legislation that would allow Medicare to negotiate the prices it pays these companies — which promised to cut costs at the pharmacy counter but decimated annual revenue by an estimated $550 billion dollars from the US pharmaceutical industry — Schrader was among a small handful of Democrats who pushed back, and he played a key role last year in curtailing his party’s efforts.

Today, Schrader’s political career hangs by a thread after a leading opponent, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, made the congressman’s opposition to the Democrats’ landmark drug pricing bill a central issue of his campaign. His potential loss has rekindled interest on Capitol Hill in pushing prescription drug legislation ahead of the midterm elections, as Democrats stand to lose their congressional majority and any chance to follow the aggressive type of policy. they have promised in their campaigns since at least 2006.

“This is a wake-up call across the country about the importance of taking action to reduce the cost of drugs,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D), a fellow Oregonian, a longtime advocate Medicare drug negotiation date and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The conversation was further fueled by Democrats’ urgency to pass legislation – any legislation – that can address rising consumer prices, as well as recent comments by Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.), Who played the lead role last year in derailing Build Back Better, the Democratic mega-bill that was to include drug pricing legislation alongside climate, taxes, child care and many others? provisions.

Rather dead or slightly alive? Democrats do not yet know if Build Back Better can be revived.

While Manchin has repeatedly declared Build Back Better dead since pulling the plug in December, he has insisted he is still open to legislation dealing with prescription drug prices. In a brief interview last week, he said drug pricing would be “the easy elevator” in any package that comes together in the coming months.

Appearing at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Monday, Manchin said he sees drug pricing legislation as the centerpiece of any potential Democratic bill, alongside inflation and energy provisions. .

But it’s Schrader’s likely loss that has lit a fire under some Democrats who fear it won’t just be Democratic voters punishing them at the polls this year for failing to deliver on one of their key promises.

Interviews with key Democrats revealed a growing sense of desperation about the need to act on drug prices, especially as inflation continues to weigh on the US economy and Democrats’ hopes of saving their majorities in November. A group of 20 House Democrats from endangered rotating districts nearly pleaded with Wyden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) to pass legislation in a letter this week.

“Like you, we were sent to Washington with a promise to tackle big issues and work to improve the lives of those we represent,” they wrote. “And what subject do we hear about in each town hall? At each event? The price of prescription drugs.

While many Democrats, including Wyden, have been reluctant to single out Schrader’s actions, they said his election shows voters are frustrated with inaction — and ready to punish those who appear to stand in the way.

“We have repeatedly pledged to lift this absurd restriction that prevents Medicare from negotiating drug cost limits,” Wyden said last week. “I’ve had a thousand town meetings, and the opposition to negotiating lower drug prices must be in the witness protection program, because I can’t find them.”

Even critics of the pharmaceutical industry agree that it is not Schrader’s fault that drug pricing legislation has not been enacted. In fact, he was part of a group of moderate Democrats who struck a deal with more liberal colleagues last November to offer a compromise — a compromise that would allow the federal government to negotiate with drug companies, but only on a set limited medication.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who worked closely with Schrader as the leader of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Schrader’s run. But she said those on the party’s left flank had “misinterpreted” her views.

Last year, Schrader was among a small group of Democrats who refused to advance the House leadership-approved drug pricing bill, the Drug Cost Reduction Now Act — refusing at some point to push it forward in a key Energy and Commerce Committee vote. That opposition, along with Senate opposition from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), led to the narrower compromise bill.

A bitter pill: Biden suffers a familiar defeat on prescription drug prices

While it appeared the legislation had universal support among Democrats, it needed to move alongside several other party priorities for procedural and strategic reasons. When Manchin ended the larger package in December, drug prices plummeted.

“What he actually worked on was helping advance Democratic values ​​and doing it in a pragmatic way that would actually become law,” Murphy said.

With no bill passed, Schrader quickly found himself on the defensive in Oregon. McLeod-Skinner made Schrader’s committee vote a campaign goal. In a television commercial, the contestant drove a paper shredder over a giant-sized novelty check with “Big Pharma” written on it.

“Schrader sold out to big pharma,” McLeod-Skinner said in the ad. “I’m running to lower the price of prescription drugs.”

Voters who saw Schrader’s place also saw ads from Center Forward, a political action committee funded by the pharmaceutical industry. During the brief televised candidates’ debate, McLeod-Skinner repeatedly berated Schrader for his role on the committee, saying pharmaceutical donations to his campaigns bought him off.

“He was the deciding vote against the possibility of lowering the price of our prescription drugs,” McLeod-Skinner said. “All those ads you see? It’s actually paid for by the profits of people who haven’t seen prescription drug prices come down.

Onstage, Schrader argued that he had saved prescription drug reform, offering an alternative “that I helped develop that could actually pass the Senate,” pointing to what was a watered-down version offered over to what had been deleted.

“I’m not beholden to any drug company – I hired them,” he said, citing his efforts to fight price gouging by some drug companies.

Schrader, who did not respond to interview requests, trails McLeod-Skinner by nearly 20 points on Tuesday, with about three-quarters of the ballots counted. While some forecasters called the race for McLeod-Skinner, The Associated Press did not, due to thousands of uncounted mail-in ballots.

Another test is slated for June 7, when Rep. Scott Peters (D-California), another architect of the narrow drug price compromise, faces a primary that includes a more liberal challenger, Kylie Taitano, who has attacked him for its drug pricing efforts. Taitano, however, has raised only a fraction of what McLeod-Skinner has raised and is running in a primary that will be contested by voters from all parties, not just Democrats.

Meanwhile, those already elected are stressing the need for action, and many are proposing a drug pricing bill as a surefire fighter against inflation.

“It used to be one thing when people were dealing with these super high prices for their monthly insulin dose, but now they’re dealing with this, and $5 worth of gas, exorbitant rent and food,” said said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vermont.). “In this context, we actually have an obligation to start addressing the affordability challenges that people are facing.”

The pharmaceutical industry, meanwhile, insists that Democrats’ efforts continue to be misplaced. While the compromise legislation may have unified Democrats, it is still opposed by PhRMA, the industry’s leading trade group, and virtually all Republicans. Brian Newell, a spokesperson for PhRMA, pointed to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that drug prices have not risen amid runaway inflation elsewhere in the economy and said the Democratic proposals ” would provide little relief to patients struggling to pay for their medications.”

“What voters need is for lawmakers to work on common-sense solutions that fix our broken insurance system and reduce out-of-pocket payments to patients,” he said.

But for Democrats, the political imperatives are clear: “We have to do it because people need it done,” Welch said. “Politically it is wise to do so and political malpractice not to do so.”

Leigh Ann Caldwell and David Weigel contributed to this report.

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