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After branding himself as a unifier with rural and military roots he said will help him appeal to voters across the aisle, Democrat Mike Franken has accused Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of being “all hat, no cattle” on health care.
Just one month into his nomination for the U.S. Senate after an upset victory over Abby Finkenauer in the Democratic primary, the retired Navy admiral lobbed two shots at the longtime senator.
“After over 40 years in the Senate, Grassley now wants us to believe that he favors lowering prescription drug costs,” Franken said in a July 12 news release.
He said that decades after writing a bill that banned Medicare from negotiating for lower drug prices, Grassley still doesn’t support the idea. Franken also claims that Grassley has accepted millions from the pharmaceutical industry in the mean time.
Was Franken correct in making those claims?
Claim: “ …(Grassley) helped write the bill that banned Medicare from negotiating for lower drug prices — a policy he still refuses to support.”
The bill in question is the Prescription Drug and Medicare Improvement Act of 2003, sponsored by Grassley alongside three Republicans and a Democrat. It passed both chambers of Congress by a considerable bipartisan margin and was signed by President George W. Bush as the largest overhaul of Medicare since the program’s inception in 1965.
From 1990 to 2000, spending on prescriptions rose twice as fast as other health care costs. In response to rising drug costs, private plans that retirees depended on for prescription coverage started to scale back, leaving 25 percent of Medicare beneficiaries without any prescription coverage, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
The new law created Medicare Part D, implemented in 2006, to cover the “doughnut hole” of prescription drug costs.
But the new law also directly prohibited Medicare from attempting to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. Only private insurance companies administering Medicare Part D have the right to negotiate directly with drug manufacturers.
The side effects of this are something the Affordable Care Act attempted to fix, but drug negotiations remain a sticking point for liberals and progressives arguing for more substantial overhaul of the health care system. It remains the linchpin of President Joe Biden’s health care agenda.
Now that we know Grassley helped write the bill, let’s look at whether he still stands by it.
In January 2019, Grassley told reporters he would pursue legislation to lower drug prices, but wouldn’t pursue a Democratic proposal to allow the government to directly negotiate with pharmaceutical manufacturers.
“I don’t want to mess with the government negotiating prices with the private sector,” he said.
A May 2019 speech, still available on his website, reiterated his opposition to repealing the non-interference clause in Medicare Part D to allow “the forces of free enterprise and competition to drive costs down and drive value up.”
“It wouldn’t work if the federal government interfered with the delivery of medicine and dictated which drugs would and would not be covered,” he explained on the floor of the Senate. “That’s why we wrote a non-interference clause in the law.”
A January Congressional Budget Office report noted that from 2009 to 2018, the average net price of brand-name prescriptions rose from $149 to $353 for Medicare Part D patients, but from $147 to $218 for Medicaid patients — a program for the poor and disabled in which the government is permitted to negotiate.
Earlier this year, Grassley introduced a new bill to combat rising drug costs through pricing transparency with more accountability of pharmacy benefit managers — the Pharmacy Benefit Manager Transparency Act of 2022.
Grade: Grassley has outlined the reasons for opposing allowing Medicare to directly negotiate, but Franken is correct in making this claim regardless. We give him an A for this claim.
Claim: “Since coming to Washington over 40 years ago, he has taken nearly $1.4 million dollars from the pharmaceutical industry …”
Supporting this claim, Franken’s team cited numbers from OpenSecrets, a nonprofit started by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics whose research compiles data on money in politics.
In July, figures from Franken’s team showed Grassley’s campaign benefited $421,993 from pharmaceutical companies and $960,237 from the pharmaceutical and health products industry, totaling $1,382,230 since 1989.
Since then, the numbers in the nonprofit’s database for Grassley have increased. The former category now stands at $425,394; the latter rose to $971,062. That puts the total at $1,396,456.
Since the 1990 election cycle, Republican candidates have received 64 percent of pharmaceutical industry political contributions, on average. But in the last year, the top pharmaceutical political spenders like Pfizer and Merck have contributed slightly more to Democrats.
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Members of the Fact Checker team are Elijah Decious, Erin Jordan and Marissa Payne. This Fact Checker was researched and written by Elijah Decious.