Political News

Sen. Sherrod Brown offers up his plan to lower drug costs

Posted February 7, 2019 7:14 p.m. EST

— Sen. Sherrod Brown isn't getting on board with Democratic "Medicare-for-all" proposals, but he wants to make it clear that he's a leader in the fight to lower drug prices.

The Ohio Democrat, who is exploring a 2020 presidential run, joined House counterparts Thursday to roll out legislation to reduce drug prices in Medicare. The bill, spearheaded by Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas, embraces a long-standing Democratic position -- allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug makers. But it goes further by authorizing the federal government to license competitors to make generic versions if it can't secure a reasonable price for a given medication.

"Either the drug companies play ball and negotiate or we have an alternative, it's a free market alternative," Brown said, slamming the the Trump White House as a retreat for pharmaceutical executives. "It works for consumers. It works to actually make the drug industry more competitive."

As the 2020 presidential field starts to take shape, Democrats are looking to differentiate themselves from their peers, who are often cosponsors of each other's health care legislation. Many senators -- from Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to Kamala Harris of California to Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- have rolled out drug price plans with somewhat different focuses since last year's midterm elections, but all blame big pharma.

Brown is seeking out ground that's progressive but not as politically charged as universal health care. Last week, he told a gathering in Iowa that he supports a more gradual approach to expanding coverage, such as a Medicare buy-in plan, because it is more feasible in the polarized political environment.

The senator has long criticized the pharmaceutical industry, saying it puts profits ahead of patients, and sponsoring many bills over the years to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

On Thursday, he reintroduced a bill with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, another potential 2020 contender, a measure to require manufacturers to report and justify their hikes and penalize them for price gouging. He has co-authored sweeping proposals to increase access to cheaper versions of the complex, costly drugs known as biologics, as well as to allow Americans to import medications and to cap patients' monthly out-of-pocket spending on drugs.

Lowering drug prices is a popular issue for Democrats -- as well as Republicans and President Donald Trump. It's one of the few areas where the parties might agree to take action this year.

Democrats, though, typically want the federal government to get more directly involved in pricing -- primarily by lifting the ban on Medicare negotiating with manufacturers. But the 2020 contenders are already staking out their individual turf.

Warren unveiled a plan in December to have the government manufacture generic versions of certain drugs if their prices spike or their supplies dwindle.

"The Affordable Drug Manufacturing Act would allow the Department of Health and Human Services to step in where the market has failed," she wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post, in which she also voiced support for negotiation and importation. "Public manufacturing will be used to fix markets, not replace them."

Others are focusing on price transparency. Harris, who has wholeheartedly embraced Medicare-for-all, cosponsored a measure that would enable the federal government to block unjustified price hikes, while Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey floated legislation to bring to light drug companies' influence in state Medicaid programs.

Meanwhile, Sanders kicked off 2019 by rolling out a trio of bills that would allow Medicare to negotiate, permit the importation of drugs and peg prices to the median price in five other countries. Brown, Warren, Harris, Booker and Gillibrand are cosponsors of at least one of the proposals.

"If the pharmaceutical industry will not end its greed, which is literally killing Americans, then we will end it for them," the Vermont independent said.