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VINTON — On a rain-soaked Sunday under a park pavilion before a group of about 25 supporters, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken took Iowa Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley to task over efforts to lower prescription drug prices for Iowans.
Franken, a former admiral in the U.S. Navy from Sioux City, is challenging the Republican incumbent in the November election.
Franken pointed to Grassley’s opposition to Senate Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act, a sprawling package aimed at lowering health care costs, raising taxes on corporations, reducing the federal budget deficit and combating climate change.
Franken said the bill would lower prescription drug costs for families by placing limits on how much families and Medicare can be charged for vital medicines. Among other provisions, the measure gives Medicare the ability to negotiate the price of certain prescription drugs and caps annual out-of-pocket prescription drug costs at $2,000 for Medicare enrollees starting in 2025.
Reports by the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the combined effect of all the bill’s prescription drug provisions would save Medicare roughly $287 billion over the next 10 years.
The Senate parliamentarian, the chamber's non-partisan rule keeper, however, struck a provision that would have forced drug companies to give back money when prices rise faster than inflation. ABC News reported the parliamentarian ruled such penalties cannot be applied on individuals with private health insurance, but would stay in affect for Medicare.
Franken called the act — which Sunday passed the Senate and now heads to the House — “a great step forward.”
While he would liked to have seen some aspects Democrats’ prescription drug plan dropped from the bill remain, Franken said “getting (the act) through (Congress) is moving the needle, and let’s be known as the nation now that is moving forward.”
“And let’s be happy that we can get something that closely approximates what’s needed,” he said. “It may not be perfect, but it’s focused on the future.”
On allowing Medicare to negotiate its own drug prices, Franken noted the success of the Veterans Health Administration’s method of extracting deep discounts from pharmaceutical companies.
A 2020 U.S. Government Accountability Office report concluded Veterans Affairs paid an average of 54 percent less per unit than Medicare for selected drugs in 2017, even after taking into account rebates and discounts.
Franken’s campaign also criticized Grassley and Senate Republicans for successfully invoking a Senate rule to strip from the bill a plan to cap the price of insulin at $35 for diabetics who obtain it through private insurance. Democrats preserved a cap on insulin costs for seniors on Medicare.
Franken’s campaign claimed the insulin cap would have reduced costs for the more than 240,000 Iowans living with diabetes.
“Sen. Grassley can talk all he wants about lowering drug prices, but what he actually does in Washington — from writing the bill to ban Medicare from negotiating for lower prices to now voting against capping the cost of insulin at $35 a month — shows that what he actually cares about is protecting the profits of his drug industry donors,” Franken campaign manager Julie Stauch said in a statement. The campaign noted Grassley has received several hundred thousand dollars in contributions from the prescription drug industry.
Grassley’s office noted the insulin price cap provision didn’t comply with the Senate’s budget rules, and that he supported another insulin amendment, offered by Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy to provide for discounted insulin for low- and middle-income Americans. The amendment failed on a 50-50 party-line vote, with Democrats opposed.
Grassley also introduced an amendment to the bill that sought to increase drug pricing transparency and hold pharmacy benefit managers accountable for unfair and deceptive practices that drive up the costs of prescription drugs at the expense of consumers.
Grassley, in floor remarks, said his Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act would lower drug costs for seniors by $72 billion and save taxpayers $95 billion. The bill, Grassley said, would cap annual out-of-pocket expenses, eliminate the Medicare Part D “doughnut hole” coverage gap and prevent Medicare Part B and D drug prices from rising faster than inflation.
Grassley said he remains committed to working in a bipartisan manner to lowering drug prices, and that in the past year five of his prescription drug bills passed out of committee.
“We could strike and replace this reckless tax and spending spree with comprehensive drug-pricing reform that could garner more than 60 votes — and lower drug prices while holding Big Pharma and PBMs accountable,” he said on the Senate floor.
Grassley argued spending included in the bill will make inflation worse, raise taxes during a possible recession, and that the health provisions will hamper pharmaceutical innovation.
While Senate Democrats and some economists argue the Inflation Reduction Act will tamp down inflation, the Congressional Budget Office estimates it will have only negligible impact on prices in the near-term.
A July Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll showed Grassley leading Franken by 8 percentage points among likely Iowa voters, making it the most competitive election Grassley has faced since his election to the U.S. Senate in 1980.
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