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Drug patent push provides bipartisan meeting point

Rep. Jodey Arrington at the Capitol. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

It's not every day that some of the most liberal Democrats in Congress team up with conservative Republicans on legislation addressing drug prices, but an unusual coalition is proving the issue may defy election-year partisanship.

Why it matters: House Budget Committee Chair Jodey Arrington's sponsorship of a plan to keep drugmakers from gaming the patent system highlights the increased scrutiny some influential Republicans are giving an industry the GOP has long allied itself with.

  • Arrington's push has raised some eyebrows in the pharmaceutical industry and highlights the continued pressure on the sector even after Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

Driving the news: The bill in question was unveiled last week and is also sponsored by progressive members including Reps. Lloyd Doggett and Pramila Jayapal.

  • It targets "patent thickets" — the practice of taking out overlapping patents around one drug that bill backers say drug companies use to fend off competition. They also delay the introduction of cheaper generics or biosimilars.
  • Arrington joked to Axios that teaming up with a liberal like Doggett means "we're either about to have transformational change that is desperately needed, or you should be looking over the horizon for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

What they're saying: Arrington acknowledged that his efforts had made the pharmaceutical industry "nervous," but said he is focused on patent system abuses, not on stopping innovation.

  • "That's how I see this," he said. "It is an anti-fraud [bill]. It's to prevent the defrauding of the [intellectual property] system and fleecing the taxpayers and patients as a result."

The other side: "Attacking innovation and myopically focusing on the number of patents a medicine has won't help lower costs for patients," Megan Van Etten, a spokesperson for the drug industry trade group PhRMA, told Axios when asked about the bill.

  • "If the bill sponsors really want to get more generics and biosimilars to people, then they should stop PBMs from making it harder to get them," she added.

Between the lines: Across the Capitol, a related bipartisan measure from Sens. John Cornyn and Richard Blumenthal also takes aim at preventing patent gaming.

  • Blumenthal told Axios that he is still pushing that plan and looking for a must-pass vehicle it can be attached to. "We came very close to attaching it to something at the end of last session," he said, declining to get into specifics.
  • "The main stumbling block is pharma's opposition," he added.
  • PhRMA argues that companies need to be able to use the intellectual property system to innovate after a drug is rolled out.
  • "The drug pricing provisions in the IRA already make it so difficult for companies to develop post-approval innovation, and this legislation would layer on antitrust uncertainty," Van Etten said of the Cornyn-Blumenthal bill.

What's next: Although some notable Republicans are backing these measures, it remains to be seen whether GOP leadership will agree to include them in any must-pass packages.

  • And Republicans are still strongly opposed to the IRA's Medicare drug price negotiations.
  • Still, Sen. Peter Welch, a lead sponsor of the Senate companion to Arrington's House measure, said the backing of some prominent conservatives is "hopeful."
  • Drug companies "just want to block competition," Welch said. "We're fed up with it, and you're seeing liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans [say] 'Enough.'"

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