Biden urges U.S. Congress to take steps to lower prescription drug costs

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WASHINGTON, Aug 12 (Reuters) – President Joe Biden on Thursday called on U.S. lawmakers to enact legislation aimed at lowering drug prices, including allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices and imposing penalties on drugmakers that hike prices faster than inflation.

The Democratic president’s remarks laid out his vision to help reduce the costs for prescription medications as part of the Build Back Better agenda he is seeking to push through Congress as the nation continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers have earned high praise for quickly developing vaccines against the novel coronavirus. But the outbreak of the highly contagious disease, which upended the economy and has so far killed more than 617,000 people in the United States, also drew renewed attention to healthcare costs.

Biden on Thursday lauded drugmakers for their life-saving work developing the COVID-19 vaccines.

“But we can make a distinction between developing these breakthroughs and jacking up prices on a range of medications for a range of everyday diseases and conditions,” he said in remarks at the White House.

Biden said U.S. prescription drug costs were higher than any other nation in the world by two to three times.

Drugmakers, reeling from a reduction in doctor visits and demand for some drugs amid the pandemic, raised prices on more than 500 medicines, an analysis released in January showed. read more

FILE PHOTO: Pharmaceutical tablets and capsules are arranged in the shape of a U.S. dollar sign on a table in this picture illustration taken in Ljubljana August 20, 2014. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic/File Photo

After passing a $1.9 trillion coronavirus-related bill in March, Democrats adopted a two-pronged strategy – a $1 trillion hard infrastructure plan that passed the Senate this week and a forthcoming $3.5 trillion spending measure for so-called human infrastructure.

That spending plan would expand Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing benefits as well as lower the eligibility age, among other healthcare, climate and childcare provisions. read more More than 61.2 million people have coverage under the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly and disabled, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

‘MISGUIDED APPROACH’

Biden wants CMS to be able to negotiate for a subset of the highest-cost drugs that have no competitors.

“We’re going to provide that competition through Medicare. Medicare is going to negotiate a fair price,” he said. “Drug companies would have to sell their drugs to all distributors at the Medicare price or face up to a 95 percent excise tax. The savings for employers and employees would be billions of dollars a year.”

Biden’s proposal is not well-liked by companies. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), a trade association, called it a “misguided approach.”

“The price controls proposed by the Biden administration are nothing more than a tax on the research investments that have made break-throughs, like the COVID vaccines, possible,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce Vice President Neil Bradley said in a statement on behalf of the business lobby group.

“Price controls will result in less research investment and fewer U.S. jobs, leaving America unprepared for the next public health crisis and delaying the development of treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and many other diseases,” he said.

Reporting by Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Michael Erman; Editing by Dan Grebler and Peter Cooney

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