Democratic House Passes Landmark Legislation to Drive Down Spiraling Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 16, 2019

Just days ago, the Democratic House leadership successfully pushed for passage of landmark legislation, the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act (H.R. 3), that would give Medicare the power to negotiate directly with drug companies to bring down pharmaceutical prices and make those savings available to seniors.

House Democrats passed Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s sweeping legislation on Dec. 12 to lower the cost of prescription drugs on a largely party-line vote. The bill, which passed 230 to 192 with unanimous Democratic support and the backing of two Republicans, Reps Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn) and Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Wash), is considered “dead on arrival” in the Senate. The White House has indicated President Trump would veto H.R. 3 it if it came to his desk.

The House Republicans fought to block passage of H.R. 3 by releasing their own legislative proposal, H.R. 19, to lower drug costs. The bill, consisting of bipartisan legislative provisions to lower drug costs that had already been adopted, would have achieved lower drug prices without imposing government price controls that House Republicans believed would decrease research and development spending for new drug cures.

Although House Republican Whip Steve Scalise called on the Democratic leadership to bring H.R. 19, with 135 sponsors and no Democrats, to the House Floor, the GOP proposal did not receive a vote on its own. It was offered by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) as an amendment to H.R. 3 and failed by a vote of 201 to 223, getting eight Democrat votes.

The Nuts and Bolts

H.R. 3 would put the brakes of spiraling drug cost by giving power to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate directly with drug companies to force real price reductions while also ensuring that seniors never lose access to the medicines they need. The legislation also expands access to the lower, negotiated drug prices to persons with private insurance, not just Medicare beneficiaries.

The 320-page House bill also prevents pharmaceutical companies from price gouging patients by capping the maximum price for a negotiated drug at the average price people in countries similar to the U.S. pay. It would create a brand new, $2,000 out-of-pocket limit on prescription drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries and even delivers vision, dental, and hearing benefits to Medicare beneficiaries for the first time.

H.R. 3 also increases the number of low-income seniors eligible for assistance with their drug costs and cost sharing for hospital and doctor visits. By extending guaranteed issue protections to disabled beneficiaries and to individuals who want to switch from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare, the legislation improves access to private supplemental coverage that helps fill in Medicare’s gaps for beneficiaries in traditional Medicare.

“The U.S. House of Representatives resoundingly defied Big Pharma today by-passing historic legislation to lower prescription drug prices for America’s seniors and their families. The Lower Drug Costs Now Act (H.R. 3) accomplishes what we and other advocates have long demanded — that Medicare be empowered to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies, which the CBO says will save more than $450 billion in drug costs. It also caps Medicare beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket prescription drug costs at $2,000 per year, says Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, in a statement.

The Pros and Cons of H.R. 3

Richtman says that it is time for the Senate Chamber to act. Drug pricing legislation that passed by the Senate Finance Committee has not been brought up for a vote on the Senate floor. “We insist that the Senate follow the House’s lead and act now to lift the burden of crushing prescription drug prices. Seniors who have been rationing pills or foregoing other necessities in order to afford crucial medications have waited long enough,” he says.

In a statement released following House passage of H.R. 3, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond, called the legislation” a bold step toward lowering prescription drug prices and high out-of-pocket costs for millions of older Americans.”
“High drug prices disproportionately hurt older Americans, particularly Medicare Part D enrollees, who take between four and five prescription medications each month and have an average annual income of just over $26,000 a year. The average annual price of a specialty drug used on a chronic basis is now $79,000. Medications cannot work if they are unaffordable, says LeaMond.

Adds AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell, “Drug companies are price-gouging older Americans and taxpayers– who pay the highest drug costs in the world,” noting that “AARP is proud to support H.R. 3, which would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and cap out-of-pocket costs for Part D enrollees. The bill also enhances Medicare by improving access and adding needed dental, hearing, and vision coverage.”

Opposing the passage of H.R. 3, the White House says in a statement, “Heavy-handed government intervention may reduce drug prices in the short term, but these savings are not worth the long-term cost of American patients losing access to new lifesaving treatments.” Noting that lowering the price of prescription drugs is major concern for seniors, the White Houses warned that H.R. 3 is the wrong approach to address this issue, “especially when bipartisan legislative alternatives that encourage innovation while lowering prescription drug

During a briefing with reporters over two months ago, President and CEO Stephen Ubl, of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), warned the passage of H.R.3 would trigger “nuclear winter” for biotech innovation. Fiercely opposing passage, PhRMA has called on the Senate to “stop H.R. 3 in its tracks.”

Putting the Brakes on Rising Drug Costs in Rhode Island

“We all know someone who has been forced to ration the medication they need to live so that they can afford to keep a roof over their family’s heads or put food on the table. In America, in 2019, this should never be the case,” said Congressman David N. Cicilline (D-RI), who voted to pass the measure. “Pharmaceutical companies have abused American patients and taxpayers to increase their profits hand over fist without recourse for too long. The Lower Drug Costs Now Act will put an end to the price gouging by big pharma that sees American patients and taxpayers paying more for their prescription drugs than people in other countries, says the Rhode Island Congressman representing the state’s first congressional district.

In his 2016 campaign, President Donald J. Trump supported the government to negotiate drug prices. Cicilline calls on the president to honor this promise and urges Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring a companion measure to the Senate floor for consideration. At press time more than 300 House passed bills are stuck in the Senate (about 275 are bipartisan).

According to Cicilline, the out-of-pocket savings to Rhode Islanders will be substantial. “This year alone, more than 1,000 women in the state will be diagnosed with breast cancer, 550 people will be told they have prostate cancer, and 190 folks will be diagnosed with leukemia. H.R. 3 will lower the average costs of many popular medications for these and other cancer treatments. The cost of Ibrance for treating breast cancer will be reduced by as much as 65 percent. Zytiga, a common prescription for people with prostate cancer, will be reduced by as much as 66 percent. And the cost of Tasigna, which is commonly prescribed to people with leukemia, will go down by as much as 71 percent,” says Cicilline, who serves as the Democratic Policy and Communication Committee Chair.

Earlier this year, the Rhode Island Congressman released information detailing how much more Rhode Islanders with diabetes pay for their insulin than people in other countries. Currently, 8.6 percent of Rhode Islanders, just over 83,000 people, have diabetes. They pay from $1,200 to $20,000 per year for the most commonly used insulin medications. Under the newly passed H.R. 3, the average total cost of NovoLOG Flexpen, a common insulin medicine, would decrease by as much as 76 percent. Under H.R. 3, Rhode Islanders could spend 3.5 times less on insulin, and some of the commonly used insulins could cost as little as $400 per year.

According to Cicilline, seniors in his Congressional District will see Medicare improvements if H.R. 3 becomes law. At this time, Medicare does not provide coverage for: oral exams for 71 percent of beneficiaries, eye exams for 66 percent of beneficiaries, hearing exams for 66 percent of beneficiaries, dental exams for 75 percent of beneficiaries, eye glasses for 75 percent of beneficiaries, and hearing aids for 86 percent beneficiaries.

Under H.R. 3’s Medicare expansion, 93 percent of beneficiaries (98,800 people) stand to gain from adding a dental benefit, 75 percent of beneficiaries stand to gain from adding a vision benefit, and 97 percent (102,700 people) of beneficiaries stand to gain from adding a hearing benefit.

On December 6, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) released an updated version of their bipartisan Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act of 201. Will McConnell, who controls its legislative fate, allow it to be considered on the Senate floor? Can a conference committee iron out the different between a Senate bill and H.R. 3, that can be pass both chambers and be signed by the president?

The legislative clock is ticking. It’s 324 days until the upcoming 2020 presidential election and the voters are demanding Congress to put aside philosophical policy differences and come up with a compromise that will truly put the brakes on rising drug costs. We’ll see.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

New Budget Deal Protects Seniors’ Pocketbooks

Published in Woonsocket Call on November 1, 2015

Just days after a Republican-controlled House passed legislation with a vote of 266-167 to prevent the U.S. government from going into default on its debt obligations on Nov. 3, also averting a potential federal government shutdown next month, on Friday, Oct.30, the Republican-led upper chamber followed suit.  Just after 3:00 a.m., the Senate voted 64-35 to approve a two-year bipartisan budget plan sending the bill to President Obama for his signature.

Before Friday’s Senate vote, on Thursday afternoon GOP Presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)’s 20 minute filibuster fizzled, with Senate leadership moving forward for the budget bills consideration.  The measure had strong support for passage.  Retiring House GOP Speaker John Boehner with Congressional leaders from both political parties and President Barack Obama pulled together, putting aside differences, to craft the bill.

.           Before the companion legislation was taken up by the House and Senate, in a statement AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, representing 38 million baby boomers and seniors, called on Congressional leaders and their members to support the bipartisan agreement, one that financially protect older Americans.   Jenkins detailed a number of provisions within the 144 page bill that would “reduce skyrocketing Medicare Part B premiums and alleviate the challenges faced by the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Trust Fund.”

Rhode Island Lawmakers Give Thumbs Up

U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), called the bipartisan budget agreement “a credible compromise,” noting that “It is only a two-year patch, but it puts us on a much better path forward.   Reed, who sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee, called on the House and Senate Appropriations committees to “quickly reach consensus and produce a detailed omnibus spending package by the Dec. 11 deadline.”

“This budget deal will provide much-need relief from harmful sequester cuts and give the nation a measure of certainly we have lacked amid the patchwork of stop-gap spending bills in recent years,” added U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Whitehouse noted the bipartisan budget deal provides “much-needed relief from harmful sequester cuts and gives the nation a measure of certainty it has “lacked amid the patchwork of stop-gap spending bills passed in recent years.”

With 37,000 Rhode Islander’s relying on the SSDI program it was easy for Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) to support the bipartisan compromise budget plan because it “prevents a 20 percent cut to SSDI benefits and extends the solvency of this critical program an additional seven years, as well as protecting thousands of Rhode Island seniors from an increase in their Medicare premiums.”

“We need to do more to protect Social Security benefits for seniors, ensure cost-of-living adjustments are calculated in a way that accounts for their needs, and lift the cap on payroll taxes so millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share,” said Rhode Island’s Democratic Congressman.

On the side line, aging advocates were also closely watching the action in both chambers, too.  “We are glad that the Budget passed by Congress this week lets people who rely on Medicare breathe a bit easier – knowing their premiums and deducible will not skyrocket next year,” said Judith Stein, founder and executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy. “However, we still have concerns about the way in which the Part B cost-sharing resolution is paid for, and concerns about the expenses underlying the original Part B increases.”

“The Center continues to urge law-makers to join Congressman Courtney (CT-2) in asking Secretary Burwell to investigate and fix the underlying reasons for the huge increase in Part B costs,” said Stein. “Much of the increase seems to come from parallel increases in billing inpatient hospital care to Part B – which was never meant to pay for such care – through the use of so-called ‘outpatient’ Observation Status.”

Older Americans Protected by Enacted Budget Plan

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 would raise the nation’s debt ceiling through March 2017, allowing the government to borrow to pay its debt. During these two years it allow Congressional lawmakers to lift budget caps for defense and domestic programs by $80 billion.

The passed budget plan derails a 52 percent Medicare Part B premium increase to 30 percent of beneficiaries, which would have hit millions of seniors in their wallets next year. Similarly, the deductible was projected to increase for these individuals to $223 next year.  But thanks to the budget agreement passed this week, the deductible will instead have a more modest increase from the current amount of $147 to approximately $167.

A general fund loan to the Medicare trust fund lessens the premium and deducible increases. Beneficiaries will repay this loan by a $3 per month premium surcharge over a five-year period.

According to the enacted budget plan, next year, only the 30 percent of the beneficiaries hit by the premium increase would pay this $3 premium surcharge.  In 2017 and beyond, all Medicare beneficiaries not subject to the hold harmless provision in a given year would pay a $3 monthly surcharge theoretically until the general fund loan is repaid..

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is expected to announce final premiums for 2016 by the beginning of November.

Keeping SSDI Afloat

The enacted budget plan also prevents a 20 percent cut in Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits that would have occurred in late 2016 impacting 11 million recipients nationwide.  The enacted law now ensures at least 7 years of certainty that SSDI will pay full benefits.  Now, the passed budget measure “reallocates” a small percentage of the Social Security payroll tax to the SSDI program.  This has occurred 11 times.  But, GOP lawmakers have blocked recent efforts to transfer funds as a bargaining chip to force Congress and the Obama Administration to make cuts to Social Security benefits.

The new law would also tightens up the SSDI review process by requiring a physician or psychologist to review applications before a decision is made.  It ensures that application reviews are uniform nationally.  Finally, it requires the Social Security Administration to reject medical evidence presented in a disability application that was provided by “unlicensed” or “unsanctioned” physicians.

It also attacks Social Security fraud and abuse by providing additional funding to contact case reviews ensuring the applicants are entitled to the benefits, improves the fraud-fighting capacity of the SSA’s Office of Inspector General and increases penalties for those physicians, lawyers, translators who perpetuate fraud.

Finally, the bipartisan budget agreement closes loopholes in the current SSA law that allows higher-income recipients to exploit the rules for applying for benefits, with the goal of receiving large pension checks than Congress intended, and which most retirees are able to receive.

The savings made in the Social Security and SSDI programs remain in the Social Security trust funds and can only be used to pay for future benefits.

With Representative Paul D. Ryan now becoming the 62nd speaker of the House, the nation waits to see if the Wisconsin lawmaker has the special political skills to rein in the ultra-conservative wing of his party.  With only 374 days before the upcoming 2016  presidential and congressional elections America’s federal lawmakers must begin to work together to craft laws that will enhance the quality of life of the nation’s retirees.  Compromise is not a dirty word to those residing outside the Washington, DC beltway.  Gridlock is.