WASHINGTON — House progressives on Wednesday called for executives from six drug companies to appear on Capitol Hill next week to justify what the lawmakers termed unjustifiable price increases — the latest public display of displeasure from the Democratic Party’s left flank regarding House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s approach to lowering pharmaceutical costs.
The companies include four brand-name drug manufacturers: Merck, Eli Lilly, Gilead, and Pfizer (PFE), a spokeswoman said. The progressives also invited executives from two generic manufacturers: Mylan, the manufacturer of EpiPen, and Mallinckrodt (MNK), a company accused of paying bribes to boost sales of a treatment for a rare seizure disorder in infants. Mylan is also among the companies implicated in a sweeping price-fixing lawsuit filed by dozens of state attorneys general.
The group hopes the invitation will spotlight progressives’ views on drug pricing — in turn, forcing Democratic leadership to include their input in their negotiations with the White House and the Senate about a package of bills aimed at lowering drug costs. To date, Pelosi has ignored a popular proposal from Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas, which enjoys over 100 co-sponsors but has not been seriously considered by any Capitol Hill committee.
The invitation to pharma is far less formal, however, than those extended earlier this year by the three separate committees who have called industry officials to testify. Because the House progressives are an informal caucus and not a committee, they lack subpoena power and likely the influence to force pharma executives to attend.
“If they come, that’ll be great,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), the caucus co-chair.
The progressive group’s leaders also said they were voicing their drug-pricing concerns to ensure a plan under development from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is sufficiently aggressive.
Left-wing lawmakers have criticized several iterations of Pelosi’s long-rumored framework, including allowing Medicare to negotiate with manufacturers for prices on at least 25 drugs, or to employ an outside arbitrator to set fair prices if negotiations stall. They have also criticized the process by which Pelosi and her policy adviser, Wendell Primus, have worked to build the proposal Democrats are likely to pursue.
“I think many people will have a hard time supporting something that is too meek and weak,” Pocan said. “If it’s not a big, bold proposal, there will be a hang-up with many in our caucus.”
Pocan likened the proposal Pelosi is reportedly working on to the Loch Ness Monster or Sasquatch — a mythical, shadowy creature that House progressives have yet to lay eyes on.
“I think the speaker understands her numbers really well, and the Progressive Caucus does have 40% of the Democratic caucus,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the other co-chair. “We do need to make sure we have everyone’s voice at the table.”
All four of the brand-name drug manufacturers have already been called to testify before Capitol Hill for various drug-pricing investigations this year. Mallinckrodt, like Eli Lilly and Pfizer, is among the subjects of a House investigation led by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) into the industry’s pricing methods.
For Mylan, however, the progressives’ call is the first formal inquiry from Capitol Hill this year.
Earlier on Wednesday, across the Capitol, four Democratic senators — Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Patty Murray (Wash.), and Chris Murphy (Conn.) — renewed calls for a long-standing proposal to allow Medicare engage directly with drug manufacturers on price negotiations.
The senators declined to specify a mechanism for ensuring productive negotiations, allowing them to sidestep a debate that has embroiled House Democrats’ discussions over the same policy idea. The House group is split over how to ensure the health secretary has leverage to negotiate with drug makers — either via threatening drug company monopolies or using an outside arbitrator.
Klobuchar and Stabenow, instead, pointed to the success the Department of Veterans Affairs has had negotiating with drug manufacturers. That program utilizes a single formulary, rather than monopoly-busting threats or an arbitrator.
Klobuchar said a Medicare negotiation bill she authored “would simply unleash the power of negotiation.”
Murray said her office received more than 1,200 letters in the last week on the topic of Medicare negotiation — far more than any other policy issue.
Allowing Medicare to negotiate directly with drug manufacturers, however, has remained a red line for Republicans. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a recent speech on the Senate floor that he continued to oppose repealing the so-called “non-interference” clause preventing the health secretary from such negotiations.
Alex Azar, President Trump’s health secretary and a former Eli Lilly executive, has similarly opposed Medicare negotiation, arguing it could hinder patient access to cutting-edge medicines.
Murphy called Senate Republicans “daily allies of the drug industry,” again resurfacing Trump’s pledge as a candidate to allow Medicare negotiation and criticizing the president for not pushing his party’s lawmakers to pursue more aggressive solutions.
Both House and Senate lawmakers also criticized provisions within Trump’s proposed new international trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, saying they undercut often pointed rhetoric the White House has used to target the drug industry. The proposal would compel each country to grant a 10-year exclusivity period to manufacturers of biologic drugs.