Democrats Face Tough Messaging War on Prescription Drug Bill

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Democrats want to go into their August recess telling their constituents they’re lowering what they pay for medicines — but many of their promised changes won’t be felt for years, and only by a fraction of the nation.

Drug-pricing legislation is expected to get a vote in the Senate as soon as this week as part of a larger domestic policy package. The pharmaceutical industry, conservative groups, and Republican lawmakers are already bashing the measure in television ads and in town halls, painting it as ineffective and harmful to drug innovation.

This messaging war could be challenging for Democrats because some of the major benefits of their drug-pricing bill won’t go into effect until 2025, too late for voters in elections this November. Opponents of the drug bill say they’ll try to capitalize on that.

“The administration knows none of this is going to help benefit people anywhere around the country, nobody this year,” said John Barrasso(R-Wyo.), a physician who’s chairman of Senate Republicans’ messaging operation.

The party of the president tends to lose seats during midterm elections, and this November is shaping up to repeat that precedent. President Joe Biden has a low approval rating and Americans report increasing dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and the economy.

The legislation is the culmination of more than a decade of work by Democrats to make good on their promise to reduce prescription drug prices in the US by allowing the government to negotiate with drugmakers.

Democratic leaders say they’ve got the backing of influential groups such as the AARP, who can help spread their message about coming benefits — namely a $2,000 out-of-pocket cap on what seniors pay each year for medicines.

“Of course it will take time to phase out, and of course the opposition will try to cause problems in the meantime, that’s just the nature of it,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), head of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. “We just have to tell the story, and work with AARP and everyone else to tell the story of what we’ve done, and explain that relief is coming and it will come as fast as possible.”

Democrats also face concerns within their own party that the drug-pricing bill doesn’t go far enough because it would limit drug negotiations to only a set number of medicines that’ve been on the market for years. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats, said limiting negotiations is a mistake, and Americans want a more forceful effort to lower drug prices.

“This is a weak bill, which goes nowhere near as far as I think the American people want us to go,” Sanders said.

Attack Ads

Democrats seen as swing votes or who have difficult reelection bids already face attack ads around their drug-pricing bill. Outside groups have spent more than $8.2 million on broadcast ads lambasting the drug-pricing provision since it was unveiled in July, data from media tracker AdImpact show.

The dark-money group American Prosperity Alliance has spent $5.7 million and counting on ads in West Virginia, Georgia, Nevada, and Washington, D.C. The spots falsely claim that this legislation would strip Medicare of $300 billion, misinterpreting projections that the legislation would lower Medicare spending by $288 billion over 10 years.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), who is up for reelection this November, said last week “hundreds” of Nevadans called her office worried about the policy. “In Reno this past weekend, Nevadans came up to me because they were concerned about these false accusations,” Cortez Masto said on the Senate floor.

The Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, a political tax-exempt group, has spent more than $1.1 million on ads in West VirginiaGeorgiaNevada, and Washington, D.C., urging key senators not to “mess with” Medicare. And PhRMA, the trade association for pharmaceutical companies, is spending more than $1 million across the country warning “government price-setting could mean fewer medicines in the coming years.”

Supporters of the proposal are outgunned, spending millions of dollars less in the same timeframe on broadcast advertising to celebrate the provisions. Some of this funding comes out of the pockets of Democrats who are on the ballot in November.

AARP is spending $436,000 on ads in Washington, D.C., and West Virginia applauding the plan for “putting money back” in voters’ pockets. Majority Forward, a political nonprofit with ties to Democratic Senate leadership, spent $310,000 thanking Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) for her support for the domestic policy measure.

Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Richard Blumenthal(D-Conn.), who are up for reelection, have both spent thousands of dollars running ads touting their work to cut drug costs.

Pre-Recess Messaging

Democrats will likely keep up that drumbeat over the August recess. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi(D-Calif.) wrote to colleagues last week, encouraging members of her caucus to highlight work to “lower costs,” and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in a pre-recess memo warned a Republican majority would “protect Big Pharma profits over people’s lives.”

House Republican leaders last week distributed communications kits—pamphlets meant to give lawmakers talking points while at home in their districts—that decry a a “Democrat Socialist drug takeover could lead to 135 fewer drugs and cures.”

Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), a physician, said Democrats’ bill would “limit production” and would be a “crushing blow to research and development in the pharmaceutical industry.”

“To me, one lost cure is too many,” Wenstrup said. “And one of the worst parts about this bill: if you’re someone, like most Americans, that pays into Medicare your whole life, this bill is robbing Medicare to go ahead and pay for insurance premiums.”

Both sides of this messaging fight are a bit divorced from the reality of the drug-pricing bill, said Spencer Perlman, director of health-care research for the consultancy Veda Partners.

The Senate drug-pricing bill is the “second-best possible outcome” for the pharmaceutical industry behind no congressional action, Perlman said. It’s weaker than what Democrats have proposed in the past and likely means Congress won’t return to drug pricing for years to come, he said. Meanwhile, drug spending will continue to grow over the next decade, and Democrats’ bill is expected to slow that growth rate by about 15% for Medicare and 12% for the commercial market, Perlman wrote in a recent analysis.

Significant Changes

Democrats are trying to advance one of the most significant changes to Medicare’s drug benefit since it was started in 2006. Some of them will be more apparent than others, researchers who study the program say.

In addition to the out-of-pocket cap, the bill would allow seniors in Medicare to spread out their drug costs over the year, and in 2023 Medicare beneficiaries would have no cost-sharing for adult vaccines, said Tricia Neuman, who heads the Kaiser Family Foundation’s research on Medicare.

In 2024, the bill would also eliminate the 5% coinsurance beneficiaries pay when they hit what’s known as a catastrophic threshold, which was more than $7,000 in out-of-pocket drug spending in 2022, she said. This will help people who take brand-name drugs costing thousands of dollars afford their pricey medicines, she said.

More than 1.3 million Medicare beneficiaries hit the catastrophic threshold for drug spending, and more than 1.4 million beneficiaries spent more than $2,000 on medicines in 2020, Neuman said. But that’s just a fraction of about 48 million enrollees in Medicare’s drug benefit.

“It’s a terrible program for people who need expensive, life-saving drugs,” said Stacie Dusetzina, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt, with some seniors not filling their prescription for crucial medicines because of the cost. Dusetzina was part of an April study that found almost a third of people on Medicare weren’t filling anti-cancer drugs.

Dusetzina, who studies Medicare and drug policy, said the drug bill is a big step forward for Medicare.

“Even if they don’t fully get the public to understand the nature of these changes and why they’re so important, it’s still important to do them because the program is broken and needs to be fixed,” she said.

Last Updated 08/10/2022

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