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Congress Really Wants to Get Something Done on Drug Prices. It May Fail Anyway

Yuval Rosenberg

Lawmakers are eager to show they can deliver on the issues the American public cares most about, so even as House Democrats unveiled two articles of impeachment against President Trump on Tuesday, they also announced their support for a revised trade deal with Canada and Mexico and are preparing to vote on a bill to lower prescription drug prices.

"With pending deals on budget measures, a North American trade agreement and a new paid family leave initiative, Congress faced the prospect of ending 2019 with a rush of bipartisan legislation to go along with a party-line impeachment vote in the House that would be followed by a Senate trial early next year," The Washington Post reported late Monday.

That rush of action includes both new and updated legislation on drug prices, an issue that both Congress and the White House insist is a top priority. Here’s where things stand:

The House is set to vote on Pelosi's plan to lower prescription drug prices: The bill, H.R. 3, would allow Medicare to negotiate prices of between 35 and 250 high-cost drugs directly with manufacturers, among other provisions. It is likely to pass the Democratic-controlled House on Thursday, despite some concerns from progressives who say it doesn’t go far enough. Pelosi on Monday reportedly warned progressives against any attempt to organize opposition to the legislation.  But the bill probably isn’t going anywhere in the Republican-led Senate, and The Washington Post’s Paige Winfield Cunningham suggests that Thursday’s House vote “ensures lawmakers will spend the week criticizing each other’s ideas about lowering drug prices instead of working on the issue together.”

House Republicans unveiled their own drug pricing bill: The Lower Costs, More Cures Act pulls together what its Republican backers say are more than 40 provisions with support across party lines, including many that mirror bipartisan legislation languishing in the Senate, such as a $3,100 cap on out-of-pocket drug expenditures for Medicare beneficiaries. But it leaves out the more aggressive and controversial elements of Pelosi’s bill, including her plan to allow the government to negotiate prices with drugmakers and her use of international prices to cap U.S. payments.

“Speaker Pelosi’s partisan drug pricing scheme is not only bad policy, it’s never going to become law,” GOP lawmakers said in a statement announcing their bill. “We’re all here to get things done for the American people — so let’s get this done, and let’s do it now.” That call will likely go unheeded. “Republicans’ competing bill is unlikely to gain much, if any, Democratic support,” writes STAT’s Nicholas Florko, “but the bill is good messaging from a party that has been criticized in the past for being too cozy with drug makers.”

The bipartisan Senate bill looks unlikely to pass: Senate Finance Committee leaders on Friday released a slightly revised version of their drug pricing legislation, which Trump supports. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has reportedly criticized the legislation in private and other Republican senators have objected to it as well. “The committee is hoping that coupling the package with funding for a slew of health programs will convince McConnell to take it up, but there’s still no word on whether that’s wishful thinking,” STAT’s Florko reports. And lobbyists say the bill has little chance of getting passed, the Post’s Winfield Cunningham adds.

The bottom line: There’s lots of activity around drug prices, but little sign right now that any of it will result in legislation that becomes law rather than just fodder for political messaging fights.

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