On the campaign trail in New Hampshire this week, with the nation’s first primary contests mere days away, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump aligned himself with Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi on a key policy question.
Trump declared support Monday night for allowing the federal Medicare program to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, claiming the government could “save $300 billion” a year if allowed to do so. (Experts have estimated the savings to be closer to $16 billion a year). The hotel mogul pointed to the lobbying power of those companies as the reason this doesn’t happen already.
Thus, the man who has railed against Obamacare as a “disaster” and promised to replace it with a “beautiful” private system endorsed a policy that would give the government more control over the health care market. It’s a change Democrats have demanded for more than a decade, ever since the government was barred from conducting such negotiations by a 2003 law signed by President George W. Bush. President Obama has called for restoring this power in his past few national budget proposals, but the Republican-controlled Congress has blocked its implementation. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced a bill in September to empower the government to negotiate with drug companies. The bill would also allow people to legally import cheaper drugs from Canada, and would force pharmaceutical companies to report their research and development costs.
CREDIT: Andrew Breiner
The U.S. has some of the highest prescription drug prices and spending in the world, which has proven a serious barrier to low-income patients accessing the medicine they need. Per capita drug spending jumped by more than $100 last year alone. Even with health insurance, American with cancer are twice as likely to go bankrupt from medical costs than those who don’t have cancer. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies are enjoying record profits, and spending hundreds of millions per year lobbying Congress to block regulation of their industry.
Trump’s assertion this week that drug companies’ political power is to blame for these trends has merit. Since 1999, pharmaceutical companies have poured more money into lobbying than any other industry. Drug companies have also upped their campaign donations, giving to both parties but spending more heavily on behalf of Republican candidates.
Most Republicans have long opposed letting the government negotiate cheaper drug prices for the elderly, characterizing the proposal as a dangerous “step down the road to a single-payer, government-run health care system.” But the GOP has been feeling popular pressure on the issue as the 2016 election heats up. The rising cost of drugs has become a key topic in the presidential race, with voters demanding to know how candidates would counteract the skyrocketing cost of medicines.
Though some Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ben Carson, have criticized the drug companies for their price hikes, they have offered few concrete policy solutions. Sen. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush have called for loosening the rules at the Food and Drug Administration so the government approves new drugs more quickly, claiming the increased competition would lower prices.
While Trump’s comments on Medicare are out of line with his party, they are well within line with his own record. Trump has previously blasted his Republican competitors for their proposals to cut or privatize Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, calling such a move “not fair to the people that have been paying in for years.” He has also joined Sanders in endorsing the idea of universal healthcare, saying such a policy has worked well for Canada, Scotland, and other nations. Though he has yet to lay out a concrete health care policy, he has vowed: “I can work a deal with hospitals that will be great for everybody.”
Meanwhile, leaving the government at the mercy of drug companies who can name their own prices has become a major financial burden on the government, and will continue to balloon as the nation’s largest generation retires.