WASHINGTON — Sen. Sherrod Brown on Thursday became the latest Democratic presidential hopeful to sign onto aggressive legislation aimed at lowering the cost of prescription drugs.
Brown joined Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and a slate of Democratic congressmen on a bill that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and strip patent exclusivity from pharmaceutical companies if those negotiations fail. While the bill is not Brown’s first foray into drug pricing policy, it is the strongest indication yet that he, like many other 2020 hopefuls, may begin to take a more aggressive tone on the pharmaceutical industry.
“We know the White House looks like a retreat for pharmaceutical executives,” Brown said at a press conference, a swipe at President Trump’s health secretary Alex Azar, a former Eli Lilly executive. (Azar, in fact, has made drug prices a focus of the administration’s health policy.)
If the bill passed, Brown added, that would mean “45 million Americans will have lower drug prices, because either the drug companies play ball with the former-CEO/secretary of HHS … or we have a free-market alternative that works for consumers and works to make the drug industry, actually, more competitive.”
The Medicare Negotiation and Competitive Licensing Act would empower Medicare to negotiate directly with manufacturers for drug prices, which is currently prohibited. It would also strip the companies of their exclusive rights to a drug if those negotiations failed. Along with Brown, the bill was introduced by lawmakers including Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who chairs a powerful health subcommittee, and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.).
“Big Pharma relies upon the taxpayer money for research and it relies on government approved monopolies for its monopoly position, with no countervailing force to retain its prices,” Doggett said.
Left-leaning advocacy groups, including Families USA, Public Citizen, and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, were quick to endorse the legislation Thursday. Many echoed lawmakers’ criticism that pharmaceutical companies, in 2003, successfully lobbied to include a provision banning Medicare negotiation when the program’s prescription drug benefit was first enacted.
A spokesman for the drug industry trade group PhRMA bashed the legislation hours after its introduction, saying it took the “unprecedented step of allowing the U.S. government to nullify a manufacturer’s patents, gutting incentives for future innovative research, and undermining the intellectual property system that is the backbone of American innovation.”
Many of the lawmakers who backed the legislation introduced Thursday have, in recent years, introduced their own legislation to rein in drug prices. Baldwin — who is not thought to be considering a 2020 bid — has introduced several bills on the topic. Welch is a longtime critic of the drug industry who introduced his own version of a Medicare negotiation bill last month, though it does not include language challenging intellectual property rights.
Other progressives have included intellectual-property provisions in drug-pricing legislation as teeth to ensure cooperation on the part of pharmaceutical companies — most notably, a bill from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that would cap U.S. drug payments based on an index of prices paid overseas.
Other 2020 hopefuls have also made drug-pricing legislation a prominent element in their nascent legislative agendas. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also backed the legislation introduced Thursday, though she did not attend the introductory press conference.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in December introduced a bill that would allow the federal government to manufacture generic drugs. Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) in December introduced a bill to “end predatory price gouging on lifesaving drugs.” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who announced his bid last week, has introduced a bill to police drug companies’ influence over Medicaid drug coverage decisions.
Warren, Harris, and Booker have already announced their campaigns, and Klobuchar is expected to launch hers at a rally in Minnesota on Sunday. Brown, Merkley, and Sanders, meanwhile, continue to openly mull runs.
Brown and yet another declared 2020 candidate — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) — also re-introduced legislation on Thursday that would force pharmaceutical companies to publicly justify price hikes and penalize price increases the government deems excessive.
While Republicans and drug companies often dismiss Democrats’ most ambitious drug-pricing legislation, Brown expressed optimism that if the House passed the Medicare negotiation legislation introduced Thursday, it could force Republican senators to “reassess their allegiance to the drug industry.”