Aug 12, 2022 - Health

Drug prices could give Democrats a midterms lifeline

Illustration of a donkey pulling a giant health plus.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Vulnerable Democrats believe finally passing a law to let Medicare negotiate the prices it pays for some prescription drugs will give them a much-needed lifeline in what's otherwise been shaping up as a brutal midterm cycle.

Why it matters: A relentless focus on health care helped propel Democrats to seize control of the House in 2018, and they're hoping that delivering on this decades-long campaign promise will help them keep their congressional majorities now.

"It could help in close races or swing districts, since health care costs are a top-of-mind issue," Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson told Axios.

Driving the news: The House is due to clear the massive health, tax and climate package containing the drug pricing provisions today, and President Biden is expected to promptly sign it.

  • Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), has been talking about the legislation’s drug price negotiations and Medicare price cap this week with constituents in her swing district, according to her campaign. She told the Washington Post the bill would help her to "look a retiree in the face and say we are capping your out-of-pocket costs."
  • Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), talked about the prescription drug provisions and how it will lower costs for Medicare patients and consumers at an event with the AARP in New Hampshire on Tuesday.
  • Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), held a press conference to "celebrate" the bill's passage and talked about capping the out of pocket drug costs for seniors at $2,000 on MSNBC.

What we're watching: Polling shows that inflation and gun violence remain at the top of voters’ minds this midterm cycle, but health care costs are close behind.

  • Republicans' votes against the drug pricing provisions — particularly opposition to a cap on what patients pay for insulin — will likely be a centerpiece of Democratic campaign messaging and paid advertising, said a national Democratic official working with Senate campaigns.
  • The legislation would also extend enhanced Affordable Care Act subsidies for another three years, meaning Democrats can also tell voters that they’re keeping health insurance costs down.

The other side: The pharmaceutical industry — one of the most powerful forces in Washington — vehemently opposes the legislation.

  • A spokesperson for the PhRMA, the industry's leading trade group, said the organization was waiting for the dust to settle before making any decisions on paid advertising.
  • However, the group hinted last week to Politico that it might run ads targeting vulnerable Democrats who voted for the bill.
  • "This is a very consequential vote. Those members who vote for this bill will not get a free pass. We'll do whatever we can to hold them accountable," said Stephen Ubl, CEO of PhRMA.

The bottom line: Polling has consistently shown that voters want lower drug prices. But that doesn’t guarantee that passage of the bill will resonate with voters, especially because some of the drug pricing provisions don’t go into effect until 2024 or 2026.

  • "The challenge for the Democrats will be can they make what they did with the IRA seem current in today's very short-term environment," said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University.
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