Democrats Urge Reticent Biden to ‘Go Big’ on Health, Drug Prices

  • Lawmakers want to hitch health bills to infrastructure measure
  • White House sidesteps backing care expansion ideas

Democrats are urging the White House to include their health policy ideas in the next phase of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package, hoping to gain an edge over colleagues with competing plans.

Congressional leaders, top senators, and rank-and-file Democrats say they’ve put in calls or visits to the White House this week plugging their legislation to broaden health insurance, expand Medicare, or lower drug prices.

Biden has kept quiet on whether he plans to include health care as part of the next phase of his infrastructure plan, which has left some lawmakers fearful it’s being left out.

“I’ve talked with folks at the White House and I know other colleagues have as well because we’d love very much to see something on Medicare” in a new Biden infrastructure proposal, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told reporters.

George Frey/AFP via Getty Images
A pharmacy technician fills prescriptions at Rock Canyon Pharmacy in Provo, Utah, on May 20, 2020. An agreement over how to reduce the prices seniors pay for drugs has eluded Congress.

Republicans this week introduced their own drug pricing proposal to counter the Democrats’. The GOP package includes dozens of relatively minor changes to Medicaid and Medicare, including a $3,100 out-of-pocket cap on annual drug spending for seniors.

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Biden’s next piece of his massive infrastructure and economic plan, called the American FamiliesPlan, isn’t expected to include expanding health coverage or reduce prescription drug prices, the New York Times reported Thursday.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki Thursday outlined what would be included in that plan, and didn’t mention any health care policies.

Expanding Insurance

Stabenow and Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced a bill this week that would allow Americans, starting at age 50, to buy into Medicare. Stabenow said the White House hasn’t indicated if Biden would support their measure.

Their legislation has the same goal as Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) drive to expand Medicare eligibility broadly to Americans starting at age 55. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who helped lead a unity task force between Sanders allies like herself and Biden’s team, said she’s also pushing to include a Medicare expansion.

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At the same time, some moderate Democrats advocate further expanding the Affordable Care Act instead of Medicare.

Members of the New Democrat Coalition, a centrist caucus, met with Biden April 21 and requested his support for building on the ACA by making permanent the two-year expansion of insurance subsidies passed earlier this year. They also want to add more incentives for states to widen their Medicaid programs.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has been trying to arrange a meeting with Susan Rice, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, to lay out their health policy priorities for the infrastructure package, according to a spokesman for caucus head Jayapal.

Empowering the government to negotiate for lower drug prices remains a high priority for her caucus, and members would like savings from that change to expand Medicare’s benefits or extend the program to more Americans, Jayapal told reporters Thursday.

“We’re going to push really hard for it,” she said.

Push on Prices

House leaders Thursday reintroduced their signature drug pricing bill, which would direct the government to negotiate with drugmakers for lower prices on certain medicines, with the expectation that will become part of the infrastructure package.

“Lowering health costs and prescription drug prices will be a top priority for House Democrats to be included in the American Families Plan,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Thursday.

Pelosi May Revive Drug Price Bill With Infrastructure Package

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to hold a hearing on that legislation in early May.

That legislation would cut government spending on drugs by $456 billion over a decade, according to congressional scorekeepers. It would use some of that savings to cap Medicare seniors’ out-of-pocket medicine expenses at $2,000 per year—lower than the limit in the Republicans’ proposal.

Progressive groups say they’re also pressing the White House and congressional leaders to couple a drug price negotiation measure with expanding government health insurance.

“We want them to go big—as big as possible—on both drug pricing negotiation and Medicare expansion,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works.

With assistance from Emily Wilkins

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com

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