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What Better Start for Bipartisanship and Healing Than Lowering Drug Costs? | Opinion

Newsweek logo Newsweek 11/26/2020 Lynn Westmoreland
a man wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a crowd: President-elect Donald Trump (C) and President Barack Obama (R) are greeted by members of the Congressional leadership including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as they arrive for Trump's inauguration ceremony at the Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. © J. Scott Applewhite - Pool/Getty President-elect Donald Trump (C) and President Barack Obama (R) are greeted by members of the Congressional leadership including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as they arrive for Trump's inauguration ceremony at the Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC.

On November 20, President Donald Trump, who most don't perceive to be the most bipartisan political figure in Washington, released an executive order that could end the lame-duck gridlock currently seen in the nation's capital.

The executive order will reduce Medicare drug prices by preventing middlemen (namely, insurers and pharmacy benefit managers) from pocketing cost-savings rather than passing them along to seniors. The widely praised measure will save patients up to 30-percent on their prescription costs.

American consumers have long called for drug pricing reform. It's easy to understand why. The cost of prescription drugs has skyrocketed 33-percent since 2014. Over eight-percent of Americans admit to skipping their medication to save money. Seniors have faced the brunt of the pain. One in five aged 60 and over struggle to pay for their prescription drugs, and one in four with chronic conditions stop taking medications over cost concerns. An April 2019 report found that over a 12 month period, they withdrew approximately $22 billion from their long-term savings just to cover medical expenses.

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That's what makes the president's Medicare executive order so critical. It will provide relief to some of the most vulnerable members of society at a time when they can use the help the most.

But the lid on this important public policy issue should not close at this juncture. Congress should utilize this opportunity to implement further drug pricing reforms to Medicare before the year's end.

Both Democrats and Republicans understand the need to do so. Both sides filled their campaign speeches this year with promises of pushing for lower medication costs.

Joe Biden provided similar rhetoric to President Trump. He outlined a desire to create review boards and implement regulatory changes to fix the problem at hand. Down the ballot, individuals like Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., pressed for prescription drug relief and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, set his sights on broader system reform. Countless others struck a similar chord.

Now is the time for Congress to latch onto the momentum created by the executive branch and provide a sweeping victory for this nation's seniors before the holiday recess.

One bill that's gotten attention recently and has the propensity to pass in lame-duck is the bipartisan Increasing Access to Biosimilars Act. The legislation, which boasts a wide variety of Democratic and Republican co-sponsors in the House and Senate, would direct the Department of Health and Human services to oversee a program that further incentivizes the use of biosimilars within the Medicare program.

Biosimilars are medications that drug makers create to be near-matches to Federal Drug Administration-approved name-brand drugs. They often cost significantly less and still deliver the same life-saving results.

In recent years, biosimilars have grown significantly in importance to American consumers. According to a study from AARP, the average cost of a brand-name drug used to treat chronic health conditions topped $5,800, despite costing only $1,800 in the preceding decade when its study began. But doctors often prescribe brand-names out of habit, which prevents patients and the Medicare program from reaping the cost-savings.

IABA would create an incentive program where doctors, patients, and the program itself all share the savings from their use. It would make life-saving drugs, like cancer treatment, more accessible to struggling constituents, reduce health care spending, and promote long-term savings on both a personal and governmental level.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has already stated that broader system reform will likely not happen until the new Congress, assuming they can get a coronavirus deal through in December. That said, getting immediate relief like the IABA done now will help constituents in the interim.

Over in the Senate, the path towards passing a bill like the IABA seems even clearer after attempts at drug pricing reform came up short earlier this year. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will not have an election-concerned Senate to deal with when debating legislation. With immediate relief being the central agenda of its December session, one would think that legislation in the profile of IABA would easily fit into the body's current plans.

President Trump's executive order started the Medicare drug cost conversation. It's up to Congress to keep the reforms coming. The scars of the election should not stop our representatives from addressing consumers' needs. They need their members of Congress' help, and now is the time they should provide it.

Lynn Westmoreland served as a U.S. member of Congress for Georgia's 3rd District from 2007 to 2017 and the 8th District from 2005 to 2007.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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