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  1. Opinion

Why is lowering drug costs a partisan issue? | Editorial

The U.S. House has voted to let Medicare negotiate lower drug costs. What’s wrong with that?
The U.S. House has passed legislation that would enable the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare recipients. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan) [MARK LENNIHAN | AP]

Virtually ignored in the impeachment haze, the U.S. House has passed common-sense legislation that finally would give the federal government the power to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies lower prescription drug prices for Medicare patients. Yet President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the bill and the Senate is expected to ignore it. The rising cost of prescription drugs is a key issue in Florida and the nation, and at least the House’s action should put pressure on the Senate to pursue its own solution.

It’s difficult to fathom why allowing Medicare to negotiate for better drug prices is a partisan issue. Trump campaigned on the issue in 2016. Yet the legislation passed the House last week along partisan lines, with every Democrat voting for it and all but two Republicans opposing it. In Tampa Bay, Democratic Reps. Kathy Castor of Tampa and Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg voted for it, and Republican Reps. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor, Ross Spano of Dover and Vern Buchanan of Sarasota voted against it. Remember those votes at election time next year.

There are plenty of good provisions in the House bill that would benefit Medicare recipients beyond allowing the government to negotiate for better prices for up to 250 commonly used drugs. For example, there would be a new limit on out-of-pocket drug costs of $2,000. Drug manufacturers also would be required to pay rebates back to Medicare if drug prices rise faster than inflation. But the legislation also would benefit everyone else, because it would require drugmakers to offer the negotiated Medicare price to private insurers.

What would be the practical impact? In the Tampa-based district represented by Castor, a long-time supporter of allowing Medicare to negotiate for better drug prices, about 92,000 residents rely on Medicare Part D for prescription drugs and more than 484,000 residents are covered by private insurance. More than 19,000 Florida women are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and the House legislation is projected to lower the average cost of of the breast cancer medication Ibrance by 65 percent, from $69,000 to $23,900 per year. More than 21 percent of Floridians have arthritis, and the House legislation is projected to lower the cost of most arthritis drugs from about $40,000 a year to $10,000 a year. That’s real money.

The Republican-controlled Senate is where good legislation passed by the Democratically controlled House goes to die, regardless of whether it is reforming campaign finance laws, raising the minimum wage or banning off-shore drilling. The least Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should do is start moving a bipartisan Senate bill that includes provisions in the House legislation such as a limit on out-of-pocket expenses on prescription drugs for Medicare recipients and the rebate requirements for drug companies. The Senate bill unfortunately does not include the key provision that would allow the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices, but that could be an issue to negotiate later.

While Congress stalls, the high cost of prescription drugs is being addressed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature. State lawmakers passed legislation at the Republican governor’s request this year that would allow the state to pursue importing prescription drugs from Canada. That would require federal approval, and Trump has signaled his administration will sign off. Just this week, state Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, recounted her experience fighting the high cost of a prescription her daughter needed. She is filing legislation that would regulate pharmacy benefit managers who help decide which drugs patients get at the pharmacy and how much those prescriptions cost.

The high cost of prescription drugs affects everyone, and it should not be a partisan issue. Now that the U.S. House has passed its legislation, the Senate should take up the issue and work toward a compromise that both Republicans and Democrats can embrace.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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