Forget About Cheaper Drugs on Trump's Watch

By Froma Harrop

October 30, 2018 5 min read

President Trump's plan for lowering Medicare drug costs is good, even cutting-edge. As Democrats successfully campaign on health care, Trump has come back with a proposal that could save Medicare patients and taxpayers $17.2 billion over five years. Too bad its chances of happening are close to nil.

We've seen this talkie before. As Election Day approaches, Trump makes a promise that seems to favor the public over big-money interests. The moment the last vote is counted, it vanishes.

But let's examine this interesting idea. It would link the price Medicare pays for most doctor-administered drugs (under Medicare Part B) to an "international pricing index." The index would include pricing data from other developed countries.

It is scandalous and true that Americans pay far more for drugs than others. Trump cited the extreme example of Treanda, a cancer drug. Medicare pays nearly seven times the index price. (The Department of Health and Human Services lists the 16 countries used for this index.)

Why all this skepticism? Here are reasons that this campaign pledge has but a snowball's chance: Recall that Trump ran for president vowing to let Medicare negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical companies. That excellent idea died once the election dust cleared. And it was effectively buried the day Trump named Alex Azar, a former top executive at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, as HHS secretary.

In an obvious ploy to seduce the electorate, Azar theatrically called Trump's new plan the drugmakers' "ultimate nightmare." Do you seriously believe that this Big Pharma alumnus would do anything to disturb the sleep of his former colleagues? Just last June, Azar denounced having Medicare negotiate drug prices as "socialized medicine."

The lobbying group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America responded to Trump's eleventh-hour proposal with this subtle statement:

"The administration is imposing foreign price controls from countries with socialized health care systems that deny their citizens access and discourage innovation."

The industry need not worry, though. On health care matters, Trump and Republican lawmakers have not exactly been the little guy's friend. They're now dismantling the Affordable Care Act screw by screw, including its protections for patients with pre-existing conditions.

In passing the Medicare drug benefit in 2003, the Republican Congress forbade Medicare to negotiate drug prices. This new rule would not require congressional approval, but drugmakers exert brutal control over most Republicans (and some Democrats). Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, for one, has collected over $1 million in pharmaceutical company donations since 2007 — $218,500 since the beginning of last year.

So where do you think this threat to drugmaker profits is going to go?

By the way, the administration says it doesn't expect to propose the rule until next spring, leaving plenty of time to forget about it. And one must ask why such a solid concept wasn't introduced over the past two years.

Although tying drug prices to levels set by other countries would save Medicare money, we must also question why America the Great would rely on the likes of Belgium and Greece to do its bargaining. Isn't Trump supposed to be the master negotiator? Medicare is the world's largest buyer of drugs. Why can't the United States, with its massive market, negotiate its own prices?

Like Trump's promise to replace Obamacare with "something terrific," this one is almost surely headed for oblivion. The crashing irony is that Trump's Medicare drug proposal would have a greater chance of moving forward if Democrats took over the House.

Suppose, on the other hand, you believe Trump would work against Big Pharma's interests. If so, I have a big infrastructure plan to sell you.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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