So-called Dem ‘moderates’ sabotage Medicare power to bargain drug prices
Sen. Sanders said that the GOP Is owned outright by big pharma but that there is "no excuse for Democrats" to vote with the drug companies. Darron Cummings | AP

WASHINGTON—Three so-called House Democratic moderates, two of whom have received thousands of dollars in campaign cash from Big Pharma, voted this week to sabotage Medicare’s power to bargain drug prices down.

And their votes drew the ire of both the longtime champion of bargaining prescription drug prices down, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., and of Big Pharma’s top union foe, National Nurses United. NNU linked drug company profits—which price cuts would hurt—with the lawmakers’ votes.

One of the three “moderates,” Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., who represents part of San Diego, has raised $445,081 so far this year, with 20% from campaign finance committees for drug companies, led by Pfizer ($10,800) and Eli Lilly ($10,500). He has his own, much weaker, drug pricing bill in the hopper.

Another, Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., also has a record so bad on all workers’ issues—including opposing the Protect the Right to Organize Act—that the Oregon AFL-CIO did not endorse him in the 2020 state Democratic primary.

Schrader, who represents swaths of rural Oregon, beat her. He’s raised almost $400,000 so far this year, with $24,500 of it coming from campaign finance committees for health insurers and drug companies, OpenSecrets said.

Schrader, Peters, and Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., joined all 26 Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to oppose giving Medicare the power to bargain prescription drug prices down. The combination produced a 29-29 tie.

Bargaining the prices down is part of Democratic President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. Doing so would save the government—and seniors—$500 billion over a decade, the Alliance for Retired Americans said.

The committee loss the three moderates produced pissed off both Sanders and National Nurses United, the most outspoken union foe of Big Pharma. It has a long-running campaign going to convince lawmakers and candidates to sign an anti-drug company money pledge. Both are also leading sponsors of Medicare For All legislation, currently marooned in Congress.

Sanders, the Budget Committee chair, counted on giving the bargaining power to Medicare in his $3.5 trillion “reconciliation” budget resolution, which Congress approved on party-line votes in August. It would help pay for reconciliation programs’ costs.

Energy and Commerce and other committees are writing specific legislation to fulfill reconciliation’s outlines and pay the tab. While Energy and Commerce voted down curbing prescription drug prices, another key committee, Ways and Means, approved its virtually identical Medicare prescription drugs price cut. Only Rep. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fla., voted against it. So did all the Republicans.

Republican Party owned outright

“The pharmaceutical industry owns the Republican Party and no Republican voted for this bill,” Sanders said after the Commerce Committee tie. “But there is no excuse for every Democrat not supporting it.

“The good news is the full Congress must and will do far better. At a time when the drug companies are charging us by far the highest prices in the world, Congress must demand Medicare negotiate prices with this extremely greedy and powerful industry.

“Year after year, the pharmaceutical industry makes extraordinary profits and provides their CEOs with obscenely high compensation packages. Meanwhile, one out of five Americans cannot afford the prescriptions their doctors write, and thousands die each year because they lack the money to buy the medicine they need.

“The pharmaceutical industry has spent over $4.5 billion on lobbying and campaign contributions over the past 20 years and has hired some 1,200 lobbyists to get Congress to do its bidding. They are the most powerful industry on Capitol Hill.

“But people are demanding Congress stand up to them and finally lower the outrageous price of prescription drugs by requiring Medicare to negotiate. Now is the time for Congress to show courage and stand up to the greed of the pharmaceutical industry. People will not accept surrender.”

NNU was irked, too

“Nurses across the country are deeply disappointed” Schrader, Peters, and Rice “blocked Medicare drug price negotiation in the Energy and Commerce Committee,” said NNU President Deborah Burger, RN. She directly linked their votes to Big Pharma’s profits, some of which the lobby uses for twisting arms and for campaign contributions.

“This legislation would lower drug prices not only for Medicare recipients but for patients of all ages. We are dismayed These representatives chose pharmaceutical industry profits over the lives of our patients.

“However, nurses remain committed to ensuring both the House and the Senate pass Medicare drug price negotiation in the full Build Back Better package and commend the Ways and Means Committee for advancing this same legislation.” Both panels kept another key Medicare section, expanding the program’s coverage to dental, vision, and hearing benefits, which Burger commended.

The “moderates” justified their votes by citing their own alternate, much weaker, prescription drug pricing bill. Peters sponsored it and Murphy and Schrader are co-authors. Their “alternative drug pricing reform model will keep Democrats’ promise to lower out-of-pocket costs for medicines, in part by empowering the Secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate prices,” Peters claimed.

But a summary he provided showed their measure set out-of-pocket payments by seniors at between $1,200 per year-$3,100 per year, depending on seniors’ income compared to the federal poverty line. It also would let the government bargain down only the costs of drugs that have risen precipitously in the last few years, and only by 25%-35%.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.