While regular folks howl about the need to slash skyrocketing prescription drug costs, Big Pharma is showering lawmakers on Capitol Hill with campaign contributions and favoring Republicans in the House and Senate who show political promise — and an aversion to efforts to ensure the affordability of medications for the sick.
The crushing costs of drugs has returned to the policy-making spotlight as Democrats in the House, with a few defecting Republicans, have approved a bill to limit the soaring price of insulin to $35 a month for most Americans who have insurance and whose health and lives depend on the increasingly unaffordable medication. As the New York Times reported:
“To become law, the bill will need to attract at least 10 Republican votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. Some lawmakers involved in the effort have expressed optimism that such a coalition might be possible, but few Republican senators have publicly endorsed the bill yet. Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, has been working with Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, on a broader bill related to insulin prices. The bill would have substantial benefits for many of the nearly 30 million Americans who live with diabetes. Insulin, a lifesaving drug that is typically taken daily, has grown increasingly expensive in recent years, and many diabetes patients ration their medicines or discontinue them because of the cost. About one in five Americans who take insulin would save money under the proposal, according to a recent analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“But the insulin bill represents a substantial scaling back of Democratic ambitions to tackle high drug prices for all Americans. A broader prescription drug package, written as part of the $2.2 trillion social spending and climate bill that has stalled in the Senate, would limit price increases on all prescription drugs, improve the generosity of Medicare’s drug coverage, and allow the government to negotiate directly on the price of some drugs used by Medicare patients, while also limiting insulin co-payments. Other parts of the broader bill would expand health insurance coverage, extending insulin coverage to diabetes patients who are uninsured. The bill that passed the House … would not improve the affordability of insulin for people who lack health insurance.”
Pharma fancies GOP lawmakers for now
In the Senate, Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina (seen in photo, above right), is the darling of Big Pharma donors, while Cathy McMorris, a Republican from Washington, is the favorite of pharmaceutical donors, according to the independent, nonpartisan Kaiser Health News service.
KHN regularly tracks Big Pharma contributions to members of Congress, and the service’s reporters Rachana Pradhan and Victoria Knight say that Scott has doubled his usual largess from the industry as the midterm elections near and he faces reelection.
He is a prolific fundraiser, hauling in $99,000 in Big Pharma bucks in the second half of 2021 (the latest period on which financial reports are available) and $38 million overall for his campaign, the reporters found, noting the huge sums are “the most of any GOP senator up for reelection in 2022 and the second highest among senators across both parties.” The whopping dollars in his treasury — $21.5 million in his campaign account at the end of 2021 — are “fueling speculation about a future presidential run.”
Big Pharma’s affection for Scott — a member of the Senate Finance Committee since 2015 and a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee — rests not only with his growing political stature and national promise but also for his alignment with the GOP and industry view that lawmakers should not interfere with product prices and should let markets set them, KHN reported:
“Congress is under intense pressure to rein in the high prices of medicines in the U.S., which are often several times those in other developed countries. Roughly 1 in 4 adults report difficulty affording their prescription drugs, according to … polling [by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is unrelated to KHN]. Further, 83% of Americans support the idea of Medicare negotiating with pharmaceutical firms to lower prices for both its beneficiaries as well those with private insurance — that’s 95% of Democrats, 82% of independents, and 71% of Republicans.
“The industry needs people like Scott, who has introduced several health-related bills in recent years and maintains drug industry-friendly positions, in its corner. He opposes proposals introduced in legislation backed by most Democrats in Congress to let Medicare negotiate prices. In 2019, when the Senate Finance Committee considered a drug pricing bill crafted by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Scott voted against a measure that would have amended the legislation to allow Medicare drug price negotiation. (Scott himself was absent but registered his opposition through a proxy vote.) In September, as the top Republican on the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, he released a report arguing that HR 3, a sweeping measure from House Democrats to tamp down prices, would result in ‘shattered innovation’ and ‘bankrupt businesses,’ echoing arguments made by pharma companies.”
Rising House Republican pulls in pharma cash
In the House, pharmaceutical donors have flocked to McMorris Rodgers, who trailed only Scott in contributions, receiving $97,300, in the last six months of 2021, KHN reported:
“McMorris Rodgers is the top Republican on the House Energy & Commerce Committee, which has significant sway over pharmaceutical issues, and could become chair of the powerful panel should Republicans retake the House majority in November as expected. Over the entirety of 2021, she received the most money from the sector of any lawmaker.”
Big Pharma strategically seeds lawmakers it sees as promising with contributions, the news service reported:
“Pharmaceutical firms have a long tradition of strategic gift-giving to members to develop goodwill, the benefits of which typically emerge many years later. Other Republican senators up for reelection didn’t get nearly as much money from drug companies during the same period, KHN’s analysis of Federal Election Commission data shows. For example, Sen. Michael Crapo (R-Idaho), the most senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, received $68,300. Fellow Finance panel member Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) took in $48,000. All three seats are considered safe for Republicans in November. Scott has received money from drugmakers every year since coming to Congress as a member of the House in 2011, receiving $596,000 through the end of last year, according to the KHN analysis of FEC data. Scott joined the Senate in 2013 after then-Gov. Nikki Haley chose him to replace GOP senator Jim DeMint, who resigned from Congress to helm the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank. But this is his banner year; previously, the most he received was $54,000 during the second half of 2019.”
Really? In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent health care. This has become an ordeal due to the out-of-control cost, complexity, and uncertainty of treatments and prescription medications, too many of which turn out to be dangerous drugs.
It is unacceptable that special interests treat Congress and the desperate needs of the American people as commodities to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. Sure, it would be great to extend the benefit of the doubt to lawmakers, hoping they are enlightened and progressive enough so that bountiful donors don’t exert excess sway on their votes. Yeah, right. It is past time for Congress to clean up its act with its donors, financing, conflicts of interest. And, c’mon, man: the high court must give up its risible fiction that fat cats stuffing cash in politicians’ pockets is constitutionally protected “free” speech.
We have much work to do to ensure that sick and injured people can afford the prescription drugs for which they have dire needs. And we have a heavy lift in cleaning up our democratic system of corruptive big money.