During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump made repeated promises to aggressively negotiate the cost of prescription drugs, and claimed drug companies were “getting away with murder.” Since he assumed office, his rhetoric has been more muted.
But legislators have not been idle. Eighteen Democratic Senators sent a letter to Trump in December 2016 listing actions that he could take to reduce drug costs. These solutions included allowing Medicare to negotiate better prices with pharmaceutical companies, requiring the companies to be transparent about the costs of making the drugs, outlawing abusive pricing, and creating more innovation incentives. The new administration did not respond to the letter.
And now Senators Al Franken and Sherrod Brown have followed up and introduced a comprehensive bill to ensure affordable prescription drugs. It would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, import prescription drugs from Canada, and boost federal funding for clinical trials to prevent private companies from monopolizing research. The Senators hope this bill will be a helpful list of solutions for the administration if it really wants to bring down drug prices. Currently the proposed law has fifteen cosponsors, including several moderate Democrats.
As expected, prescription drug lobbyists have emerged with their usual dire warnings, claiming that innovation will be harmed and jobs will vanish. As we have previously noted, these claims are very unlikely to occur.
The Trump administration has taken no action to reduce drug prices. In January 2017 Trump met with CEOs from various pharmaceutical companies. Before the meeting he was breathing fire, stating that under his watch the federal government would bid properly on drugs. But when the meeting was over and he emerged, Trump had changed his mind. Instead of negotiations to reduce drug prices, he stated that his focus would be lowering taxes and repealing regulations, and he would “oppose anything that makes it harder for smaller, younger companies to take the risk of bringing their product to a vibrantly competitive market.” In short, he dropped his earlier positions and started talking like the drug companies.
Why has President Trump abruptly changed his views? It is possible that the CEOs made a convincing case for the current system, but very unlikely, given all the injustices that we and other organizations have pointed out. Another possibility is that Trump was never intending to take action against price gouging. His choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, opposed price negotiations as a Representative and did not give a clear answer when asked about drug prices at his confirmation hearing. And while Trump met with two Democratic representatives in March to discuss ways to combat high drug prices, he has not proposed any legislation. Moreover, in an effort to win the administration’s favor, drug companies spent over $2 million to buy access during his inauguration.
Lawmakers have proposed sweeping reforms to deal with drug prices, even as the Trump administration has retreated from its earlier promises. If the administration really wants to make progress, the ball is in their court.