U.S. House Democrats try for an alternative approach to Florida’s push for cheaper Canadian drugs

A Publix Super Markets pharmacy manager retrieves a a medication in Miami. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — A landmark health care measure that promises to dramatically reduce the rising cost of prescription drugs and significantly expand access to health care benefits and services cleared the U.S. House last week.

The sweeping legislation passed largely along party lines, with 230 lawmakers voting for it and 192 against. Only two House Republicans voted for the bill — Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. 

“This is a momentous day,” Democratic U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala of Florida said during a news conference. She cast the bill as the latest in a line of progressive health reform laws, including Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Affordable Care Act, calling it another “giant step” in health care policy.

The cost of prescription drugs has soared in recent years, and Americans pay more for drugs than do residents of other wealthy countries.

For example, the price of the diabetes drug Lantus rose from $2,907 per year to $4,702 in Florida between 2012 and 2017, according to data collected by the AARP. That’s a 62 percent increase.

In another Florida case, the annual price of Aggrenox, a heart-disease drug, jumped from $3,030 in 2012 to $5,930 in 2017 — a nearly 100 percent increase.

In 2017, 30 percent of Florida residents stopped taking prescribed medications because they couldn’t afford them, according to AARP.

U.S. drug prices are especially high in large part because the federal government doesn’t negotiate lower prices with drug companies, experts say — but the bill, passed Thursday, would enable it to do so. 

The bill takes a markedly different approach than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature, in conjunction with the administration of President Trump, the governor’s political ally, to cheaper pharmaceuticals.

The state hopes to import prescription drugs from Canada — where the government negotiates prices with pharmaceutical companies — are cheaper than in the United States.

Canadian government representatives are distinctly cool to the idea.

Under the U.S. House bill, lower prices would be available to all consumers, not just beneficiaries of Medicare, the government insurance program serving Americans over age 65 and some younger adults with certain disabilities or who have kidney failure.

The bill would bar drug companies from charging Americans significantly more than they charge consumers in other countries for the same drugs and from raising prices at rates higher than inflation. And it would cap out-of-pocket spending on prescription drugs at $2,000 and expand Medicare coverage to include vision, hearing, and dental benefits. 

Savings from lower drug costs — which Democrats said would amount to $500 billion over 10 years — would be invested in biomedical research, efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, home visitation programs for women and children, and health centers targeting underserved people.

Republicans objected to the legislation, calling it — in the words of GOP Rep. George Holding of North Carolina — a “bad deal” for Americans.

He and other Republicans said regulating drug prices would suppress innovation in biomedical research and stall the development of life-saving drugs and treatments. 

“It’s simply a chance we cannot afford to take,” said GOP Rep. Buddy Carter of Georgia. 

Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania rejected the argument, saying Wednesday that drug prices are going up not because of the cost of research and development, but because “drugmakers are jacking up prices wherever and whenever they can maximize their profits.”

Republicans also said the bill would reduce the number of drugs and treatments available on the U.S. market and force Americans to wait longer to access them.

As an alternative, they offered a smaller-scale proposal that would not “impose price controls” but would lower out-of-pocket spending and increase transparency while protecting access to new medicines and encouraging competition. 

Most Americans think prescription drugs are too expensive, polls show, and one in four insured adults has difficulty paying for them. Majorities favor efforts to reduce their cost — including allowing the federal government to negotiate prices with drug companies.

The Democratic-led bill that passed the U.S. House Thursday was not expected to clear the GOP-controlled Senate, and Trump has threatened to veto it.

The White House said it would “likely undermine access to lifesaving drugs” and cited a report by the Council of Economic Advisers, an executive branch agency, that found that it could lead to the loss or significant delay in the development of as many as 100 new medicines. 

But Democrats accused Trump — who pledged in 2016 to “negotiate like crazy” for lower drug prices — of backpedaling on his campaign promise. “Trump promised in 2016 he would work to lower drug prices,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on the floor Thursday. “For that reason, he ought to support it.”

Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo praised the legislation in a written statement on Thursday:
“Today, Democrats put Floridians first by passing H.R. 3, which will allow Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices and make care more accessible and affordable for hard-working Florida families. This important move demonstrates that Democrats are committed to improving health care for millions of Floridians — unlike President Trump’s repeated failures and broken promises. Trump’s ineffectiveness runs deep. He has drastically cut funding for Medicare by more than hundreds of billions of dollars, given drug companies billions in tax breaks, and jeopardized care for Floridians with pre-existing conditions. Floridians won’t forget Trump’s countless broken promises or his attempts to block lifesaving health care for them and their families.”
Florida Phoenix deputy editor Michael Moline contributed to this report.