Prescription drug pricing bill clears U.S. House on largely party-line vote

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed a landmark health care measure Thursday that proponents say would dramatically reduce the rising cost of prescription drugs and significantly expand access to health care benefits and services.

The sweeping legislation passed largely along party lines, with 230 lawmakers voting for it and 192 against. Only two House Republicans voted for the bill — Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania.

U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, a Democrat from Norfolk, on the House floor Thursday said making health care more affordable was a top priority.

“Nobody should need to choose between life-saving medications or bankruptcy,” she said.

Virginia’s Republican congressmen all voted against the bill, with U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith of Salem comparing it to “The Godfather,” a mob film.

“Under H.R. 3, the government wouldn’t negotiate on drug prices. It would make an offer you cannot refuse,” he tweeted.

The cost of prescription drugs has soared in recent years, and Americans pay more for drugs than do residents of other wealthy countries.

According to the AARP, about 23 percent of Virginia residents stopped taking a prescribed medication because of cost in 2017. Between 2012 and 2017, the prices of some name brand drugs to treat cancer, diabetes and heart disease climbed steeply, nearly doubling in some cases.

U.S. drug prices are especially high in large part because the federal government doesn’t negotiate lower prices with drug companies, experts say — but the bill passed Thursday would enable it to do so.

Under the bill, lower prices would be available to all consumers, not just beneficiaries of Medicare, the government insurance program serving Americans over age 65 and some younger adults with certain disabilities or who have kidney failure.

The bill would also bar drug companies from charging Americans significantly more than they charge consumers in other countries for the same drugs and from raising prices at rates higher than inflation. And it would cap out-of-pocket spending on prescription drugs at $2,000 and expand Medicare coverage to include vision, hearing and dental benefits.

Savings from lower drug costs — which Democrats said would amount to $500 billion over 10 years — would also be invested in biomedical research, efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, home visitation programs for women and children, and health centers targeting underserved people.

Republicans objected to the legislation, calling it — in the words of GOP Rep. George Holding of North Carolina — a “bad deal” for Americans.

He and other Republicans said regulating drug prices would suppress innovation in biomedical research and stall the development of life-saving drugs and treatments.

“It’s simply a chance we cannot afford to take,” said GOP Rep. Buddy Carter of Georgia.

Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania rejected the argument, saying Wednesday that drug prices are going up not because of the cost of research and development, but because “drugmakers are jacking up prices wherever and whenever they can maximize their profits.”

Republicans also said the bill would reduce the number of drugs and treatments available on the U.S. market and force Americans to wait longer to access them.

As an alternative, they offered a smaller-scale proposal that would not “impose price controls” but would lower out-of-pocket spending and increase transparency while protecting access to new medicines and encouraging competition.

Most Americans think prescription drugs are too expensive, polls show, and one in four insured adults has difficulty paying for them. Majorities favor efforts to reduce their cost — including allowing the federal government to negotiate prices with drug companies.

The Democratic-led bill that passed the House Thursday is not expected to clear the GOP-controlled Senate, and President Donald Trump has threatened to veto it.

The White House said it would “likely undermine access to lifesaving drugs” and cited a report by the Council of Economic Advisers, an executive branch agency, that found that it could lead to the loss or significant delay in the development of as many as 100 new medicines.

But Democrats accused Trump — who pledged in 2016 to “negotiate like crazy” for lower drug prices — of backpedaling on his campaign promise. “Trump promised in 2016 he would work to lower drug prices,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on the floor Thursday. “For that reason, he ought to support it.”

Virginia Mercury Editor Robert Zullo contributed.