Sen. Sanders joins drug-pricing fray

Photo credit: Bill Brooks/Creative Commons

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a Democratic candidate for president, said he plans to introduce legislation that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

Sanders said the bill would permit the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. The expectation is that those negotiations would lower prescription-drug costs by allowing Medicare to negotiate better deals on medications on behalf of beneficiaries, according to Sanders.

Sanders is the latest critic of current laws that prohibit the government from negotiating drug prices for Medicare Part D plans, the prescription-drug benefit for the nation's seniors. Medicare Part B covers drugs administered in hospitals and doctor's offices. Those include many cancer drugs and other types of specialty medications.

“Between our government's unwillingness to negotiate prices and its failure to effectively fight fraud, it's no wonder drug prices are out of control,” Sanders said in a Sept. 2 news release.

PhRMA, the industry's lobbying group, described Sanders's proposed policies as short-sighted and said the national discussion about the costs of drugs does not focus enough on how medications can prevent other types of unnecessary medical care.

“Short-sighted attempts to arbitrarily cap spending would send a signal to researchers and investors that innovation is no longer valued and would result in fewer treatment options for  patients,” a PhRMA spokeswoman said in an email.

But public support for government negotiation of drug prices may be growing. A poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in July found that 83% of Americans believe the government should be allowed to negotiate drug prices on behalf of Medicare beneficiaries, while a separate analysis released by Public Citizen and Carleton University this summer found that Medicare Part D would save up to $16 billion each year if it paid the same prices for brand-name drugs as Medicaid and the Veterans Health Administration do. (Medicaid and the VA can negotiate discounts and rebates on brand-name drugs, which lowers prices.)

Clinicians are also throwing in their support. A group of oncologists in August published a commentary in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings that called for allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices. The commentary follows intensifying criticism over drug prices from several other prominent oncologists and specialists.   

Sanders is also advocating for a number of changes opposed by the pharmaceutical industry, including tougher penalties for pharmaceutical companies that commit fraud, a ban on pay-for-delay deals that allow brand-name drugmakers to pay competing firms to keep generics off the market and lower barriers to importing cheaper versions of drugs from other countries.