PolitifactNC

Fact check: Cunningham says Tillis blocked 'his own party's efforts to reduce' drug prices

Posted September 18, 2020 7:15 p.m. EDT
Updated September 19, 2020 7:40 p.m. EDT

If a coronavirus vaccine is approved by the end of the year, Cal Cunningham says he would have valid reasons for questioning its safety.

For one, government officials have offered mixed messaging on when a vaccine might be ready. (President Trump has suggested November, while others have said that’s unlikely.)

Then, there’s the influence of big healthcare companies on Washington politicians.

In Monday’s U.S. Senate debate on WRAL, Cunningham accused incumbent Republican Thom Tillis of being a friend of “big pharma.” And he pointed to Tillis’ record on pharmaceuticals as an example of “corruption in Washington.”

“We can almost look no further than Senator Tillis taking over $400,000 from big pharma, and then even blocking his own party’s efforts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs,” Cunningham said.

It’s true that Tillis has received more than $400,000 from individuals and political committees tied to the pharmaceutical and health product industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Is it true that Tillis has blocked “his own party’s efforts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs?”

Tillis has opposed some bills that aimed to reduce prescription drug prices. (In some cases, he has offered alternatives) However, it’s a stretch to suggest Tillis is responsible for stopping those bills from succeeding.

The ‘most viable’ bill

The Cunningham campaign pointed to a pair of bills sponsored by Republicans, the most significant of which is the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act of 2019. The bill was introduced by U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon.

The Washington Post referred to the legislation as “the most viable drug pricing bill in Congress.”

It’s probably the “most comprehensive (drug pricing) package” of the last few years, said Juliette Cubanski, deputy director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program on Medicare Policy.

The bill aimed to put an inflation-based cap on some drug prices or require rebates from drug makers.

“It was interesting to see (price caps) included in Grassley’s legislation, considering the Republican belief” in the free market, she told PolitiFact in a phone interview.

Bill stalled

Grassley told CNBC in January that there’s “no other bill that can get the 60 votes required” to pass the Senate. Grassley said he had support from President Trump and some Democrats in the Senate. The problem, he said, were the Senate Republicans.

Tillis told The Hill last October that he had “concerns” about it, adding he had not made a final decision on how he would vote if the bill came to the floor. In December, Politico reported that Senate leader Mitch McConnell warned colleagues that a vote could expose Republicans to attacks on the campaign trail.

At the time, Politico reported that Tillis opposed the bill, saying the need to put caps on drug prices is being “driven by a lot of populist pressure.”

In December, Tillis and five other Republican senators introduced a competing bill known as the Lower Costs, More Cures Act. Of Tillis, Cubanski said “I think it’s notable that he’s one of the co-sponsors of the alternative legislation, which does not include this inflation cap provision.”

WBTV reported that, around the same time Tillis introduced his bill, he received more than $20,000 in campaign contributions from political action committees tied to pharmaceutical companies.

In February, the Washington Post reported that McConnell had not scheduled a vote on the bill because it would divide his Republican caucus. As of the Tillis-Cunningham debate, the bill had still not come up for a vote.

Asked about Grassley’s bill this week, campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said Tillis supports his alternative bill, but “has had several conversations with Senator Grassley about how to find common ground while striking the balance of lowering drug prices and protecting innovation.”

Other bills

Tillis is a top recipient of campaign contributions from people and PACs affiliated with the pharmaceutical industry. A Kaiser Health News analysis found that Tillis received more than $156,000 from political action committees tied to drug manufacturers in 2019, more than any other member of Congress.

The Cunningham campaign also cited the Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples Act of 2018, known as the CREATES Act. Initial Republican co-sponsors included Grassley, as well as Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Mike Lee of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine.

The legislation aimed to end “shenanigans” that delay competition from generic and biosimilar drugs, according to the American Journal of Managed Care. Tillis initially opposed the CREATES Act, but his office says he supported it after it was amended and included in an appropriations bill.

In 2019, Bloomberg reported that Tillis and Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, worked together against efforts to crack down on patent abuses.

RealClearHealth, a right-leaning news site, reported that Tillis and Coons have sought to change patent law in ways that would “lead to increased prescription drug prices, reduced access to life saving treatments and medications and de-incentivize research and development.”

Our ruling

PolitiFact: Half-true

Cunningham says Tillis has a record of “blocking his own party’s efforts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.”

It’s fair to say that, in a few instances, Tillis has opposed his own party’s efforts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs. That includes Grassley’s bill, which experts see as a significant effort.

But Tillis has also offered alternatives. And there’s not a lot of definitive proof that Tillis, alone, has halted legislation that would have otherwise passed.

Cunningham’s statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. We rate it Half True.

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