As a congressman in 1999, now-Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), was the first member of Congress to lead seniors across the Canadian border to buy cheaper drugs. Now he wants to make that possible for all Americans. As a candidate for president, he has made the astronomical cost of prescription drugs a central point of his campaign. Now he’s set to introduce a new bill to beef up the government’s ability to keep prices down.
The U.S. has some of the highest prescription drug prices and spending in the world, with much higher average yearly spending compared with Europeans or Canadians. In June, a prominent cancer doctor excoriated the pharmaceutical industry for “the unsustainably high prices of cancer drugs,” which have been rising rapidly. Even with health insurance, American with cancer are twice as likely to go bankrupt from medical costs compared with those who don’t have cancer. As a growing problem with drug addiction has turned attention to the drug naloxone to reverse overdoses, its manufacturer Amphaster Pharmaceuticals raised the price by more than $1,100. Even the prices of generic drugs have jumped 1,000 percent.
The bill would let Medicare negotiate with companies on drug costs, let people legally import cheaper drugs from Canada, cancel a company’s “government-backed monopoly” on a drug if the company is “found guilty of fraud in the manufacture or sale of that drug,” and require pharmaceutical companies to report things like research and development costs. It would also stop drug companies from paying competitors off to keep them from developing far cheaper generic versions of drugs.
Eventually, Sanders’ proposal says, “Congress should uncouple research and development costs from drug prices by rewarding innovation with a prize.” That’s an idea that’s been discussed by economists Dean Baker and Joseph Stiglitz as a way for the government to reward the development of successful new drugs by buying the patents and letting the drugs be sold as generics immediately.
Seventy-three percent of Republicans and 93 percent of Democrats support Sanders’ proposal to let the government negotiate with drug companies. Fellow Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has also signaled support for this measure and for bringing drug prices down generally, though she has not yet issued a specific proposal. Republican presidential candidates have not discussed any proposals to lower drug prices.