Scoring Political Points with Prescription Drugs

It’s an election year and the kids are fighting. The players in the healthcare marketplace are in battle mode because high drug prices have become politically airborne. Mom and Dad are the federal regulators, congressional committee members, and presidential candidates who are no longer able to ignore the issue. Drug costs have been a high stakes political topic before, and with a presidential election looming, the public policy debates are back.

“In an October survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 77% of Americans said making sure high-cost medications for chronic conditions are affordable should be a top health care priority for Congress and the president.” – WSJ

As with every election cycle, the politicians are going to highlight issues where they can score points. How and where to score these points is still unclear, but there is anxiety in the electorate and our political bodies are moving to stake out territory regarding the rapid increase in prescription drug costs.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is holding an industry forum on Friday, Nov. 20th. They’ve invited all stakeholders to the table, with the mandate that the agency is looking for ways to help consumers afford high cost drug treatments. HHS is in the Obama administration, so there is no reason to believe this forum will produce any policy recommendation surprises.  There are many new policy ideas already being considered.

“One approach could borrow from policies already adopted by California’s health-insurance exchange that restrict how much insurers can charge consumers for specialty drugs.” – WSJ

This is in line with Obama administration policy, as well as the rhetoric from current Democratic Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. California is using its size and influence to force federal policy reforms, and both candidates have proposed similar initiatives to cap a patient’s out-of-pocket exposure to specialty drug pricing.

The Democratic frontrunners also propose a law that would allow Medicare, the largest public payer, to negotiate drug prices. Republicans, however, would never agree to a policy that gave Medicare leverage over drug companies. Most of the conservative political discourse is focused around defending drug companies and championing their contributions to health innovations. While Democrats rail against price gouging. Republicans tout the breakthroughs the drug companies achieve, but don’t discuss cost vs. value or the inefficiencies of the system.

Congress is also throwing its own drug pricing party:

“House Democrats on Nov. 3 announced the creation of a drug-pricing task force to explore the roots of the increases and possible ways the government can negotiate lower costs.” And on the Senate side, Sens. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) and Susan Collins(R., Maine) said their Senate Special Committee on Aging will tentatively hold a Dec. 9 hearing on the topic.– WSJ

The government has been energized about drug pricing and each body is using their power to investigate prescription price practices. These government committees are focused on positively impacting the regulation of  the industry. The voters are passionate about reducing prescription drug costs, so the political parties are motivated to discuss and reform current market practices. This is a rare moment when both parties are motivated by voter interest and consumer advocates.  Ultimately, we all end up at the pharmacy counter, so this is an issue where we are all connected. No matter the party we vote for, we are either seated at the kids table or waiting for a seat.