Sensing an advantage, Democrats dare Trump to talk drug prices during State of the Union

February 5, 2020
In The News

WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers aren’t likely to cheer for many lines in President Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, the way their Republican colleagues might.

But there’s at least one section of the speech where the two parties’ roles might flip: the promised section on lowering prescription drug prices.

While both parties have highlighted the importance of lowering drug prices, Democrats who spoke with STAT are convinced that Trump’s decision to bring up the issue in a nationally televised speech will only remind voters how little the White House has accomplished. Trump’s nod to high pharmaceutical costs, which the White House hinted at in a call with reporters last week, will play out far better for their party than for Republicans in large part because when in comes to health care, voters trust Democrats over the GOP by double-digit margins, they said.

“Seniors and everyday Americans know that Democrats are the only ones fighting to bring down the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs while Washington Republicans do the bidding of drug manufacturers and their special interest backers,” said Robyn Patterson, the national press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a key proponent of the Democrats’ drug pricing bill, echoed the thought.

“The president hasn’t done a damn thing on drug prices,” she said. “Maybe I should fall on my knees and offer a novena.”

Trump’s remarks on drug prices will likely serve as a brief aside within a much broader speech that aims to set the tone for Trump’s 2020 campaign by focusing on higher-profile issues, like his House impeachment and the recently inked trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. But the promised comments on drug pricing come just a few months after Democrats in the House passed an aggressive bill that would let Medicare negotiate the price of prescription drugs.

“It’s not in his advantage for the 2020 elections to be a mandate on his performance on health care,” said William Howell, a professor of American politics at the University of Chicago. “You can’t entirely ignore the issue of health care, but what you don’t want to do if you’re Trump is linger on it.”

Pharmaceutical costs remain a top issue for both Republicans and Democrats heading into the 2020 election. But after a spate of recent polls showed Americans still disapprove of Trump’s efforts to save them money at the pharmacy counter, Democrats are hoping to use his speech as an opportunity to seize on the White House’s perceived failures.

While House Democrats passed a sweeping drug pricing bill in December, the Senate’s GOP majority has shown little interest in following suit. The White House’s drug pricing proposals have also largely gone nowhere — a reality that progressive lawmakers are eager to highlight Tuesday, especially if Trump tries to tout his administration’s track record.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed that 54% of Americans disapprove of how Trump has handled the drug-cost issue, compared to just 30% who approve. Another poll, sponsored by the left-leaning group Protect Our Care, showed voters in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Florida disapprove of Trump’s drug pricing record by a six-point margin.

Beyond drug pricing, Congress has failed to reach an agreement on curtailing “surprise” out-of-network medical bills or otherwise reduce health care costs. The Trump administration last week unveiled a controversial plan to let states convert their Medicaid programs to “block grant” funding, slowing future spending growth and likely shrinking services. And for the past three years, the Trump administration has pushed a lawsuit that, if successful, would overturn the Affordable Care Act in its entirety.

Democrats remain irked that, though Trump campaigned on a promise to let Medicare “negotiate like crazy” for drug prices, he promised to veto House Democrats’ bill that would empower the federal health care program to do exactly that: directly negotiate with drug makers over the price of up to 250 drugs.

“[Trump] should either say he’s willing to work with us on H.R. 3, or put forward his own proposal,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), referencing Democrats’ drug pricing bill. “But he can’t just keep tweeting. 

Republicans quickly labeled Democrats’ effort to cap drug prices an attempt at “socialist price controls,” arguing the bill would stifle innovation and new drug development. Previewing Trump’s speech, White House aides hinted that the president would use similar language to describe Democrats’ overall health care approach, and stress maintaining access to the “most innovative cures and medical breakthroughs.”

Republicans say the president should tout his administration’s attempts to lower drug prices even in the face of voter outrage. If nothing else, Trump could acknowledge the fractured process in Congress, lamenting the toll that drug prices often take on American families and that drug pricing discussions in Washington often devolve into partisan bickering, said Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.).

“I think he could show his frustration,” McKinley said. “I hope he brings it up. How he handles it? I don’t know how he’s going to do that.”

Voters don’t award “partial credit” anyway, lawmakers and GOP-aligned pollsters argued. In other words: While House Democrats may have passed a drug-pricing bill, it hasn’t lowered costs for consumers. Voters, said Jon McHenry, a pollster for the GOP-aligned group North Star Opinion Research, are unlikely to reference their “Schoolhouse Rock” knowledge about how a bill becomes a law.

“When you ask people what’s been done on prescription drug pricing, I think their answer is nothing,” he said.

Sensing a powerful political advantage on health care and on drug prices in particular, Democrats have rushed to drive the issue home with voters.

Already, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has plowed over $1 million into an ad campaign touting Democrats who voted for the House’s drug pricing bill and criticizing Republicans who voted against it. Their advocacy has manifested on the ground as well as over the airwaves: At a Saturday town hall in Minnesota, protesters wielded signs criticizing Rep. Jim Hagedorn, a Republican, for voting against Democrats’ recent drug pricing bill.

The party’s boldest show of force yet, however, will come Tuesday night in the halls of Congress, when at least thirteen Democratic lawmakers will host diabetes advocates as their guests of honor for the State of the Union.

Democrats have seized on insulin prices in particular as a poster child for runaway drug costs — already a focus for the Democratic candidates aiming to unseat Trump come November. At last year’s State of the Union address, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) brought Nicole Smith-Holt, whose son Alec Smith died after attempting to ration his supply of insulin, as her honored guest.

The list of lawmakers honoring insulin advocates on Tuesday includes three freshmen who represent districts Trump won in 2016: Reps. Abby Finkenauer (Iowa), Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), and Colin Allred (Texas). The group also includes Kildee, Reps. Charlie Crist and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), Ted Lieu (Calif.), Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), Suzan DelBene (Wash.), Susan Wild (Penn.), DCCC chair Cheri Bustos (Ill.), and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), a member of “The Squad,” a four-member group of freshmen popular among the party’s progressive flank.

No Republicans appear to have invited patients or health care consumers, highlighting the party’s precarious position on health care.

“Hopefully voters understand that the president can only sign a bill that’s sent to him,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.).

Democrats’ message for the president is simple, said Eshoo, the California Democrat.

“He has to start making good on his words,” she said.