BETTENDORF — At a forum before more than 200 people on Tuesday afternoon, Democratic presidential hopefuls vowed to reduce prescription drug prices, promote “Medicare for all” and maintain the solvency of Social Security.
The forum, sponsored by AARP Iowa and the Des Moines Register, featured New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former Cabinet Secretary Julián Castro and California Sen. Kamala Harris. It was the second of five forums scheduled across Iowa this week, with 19 presidential hopefuls participating in all. The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses are Feb. 3.
On policy, the candidates mostly agreed with the broad contours — and occasionally the finer points of their ideas. Priorities and temperaments differed.
Several people in the audience said they were looking for the candidates’ soft skills, like passion, quick wit and potential ability to debate successfully against President Donald Trump.
Asked how she would bring down the cost of prescription drugs, Gillibrand promised to use antitrust laws to prosecute pharmaceutical companies engaging in illicit practices like price gouging.
If a drug company does not produce a generic alternative in a “reasonable amount of time,” she would ask the National Institutes of Health to produce that generic “to create not-for-profit competition with the private industry.”
She also would use the public authority to undermine the influence of corporate lobbyists, she said.
“Laws are written in the dead of night by special interests,” she said. “Under my Medicare-for-all plan, the first thing I’m going to do is go back to the drug manufacturers and guarantee that American citizens and anyone on Medicare pays the lowest price for every drug.”
Gillibrand, Castro, and Harris all support Medicare for all.
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Although some Democratic candidates want to abolish private insurance, Gillibrand resisted calls for a complete public takeover of the market.
“Insurance doesn’t have to be illegal,” she said. “Let’s just compete with them.”
One of the biggest applause lines of the afternoon came when Gillibrand pledged to “outlaw the use of advertising to sell drugs.”
Castro emphasized he would fight to protect Social Security.
“You earned Social Security, so Social Security should always be strong and there for you,” Castro said.
To ensure its viability, he would increase the payroll tax beyond its $130,000 cap to fund the Social Security Trust Fund as well as “search for other revenues.”
Castro also spoke about prescription drug prices, including the need for Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
“We need to support the importation of drugs from countries that have a safe vetting process like Canada so that people can get the drugs they need cheaply,” Castro added. “There is no reason that insulin should cost several times more here, in the United States, than it does in Canada or other countries.”
Castro also connected immigration reform, one of his signature issues, to the slate of problems facing senior citizens in an aging country. By encouraging safe immigration, he said, the U.S. can attract young, needed workers.
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Harris, an attorney, vowed to require drug companies to price fairly — and to deploy the Department of Justice to enforce that and other accountability measures as necessary.
“I am prepared to end the tax break that pharmaceutical companies have been receiving for advertising prescription medication,” she added. “In the mid-’80s, the rules changed, and they’ve received these phenomenal tax breaks for direct-to-consumer marketing.
“Their main business model is about profit, not public health,” she said.
Harris wants to end private insurance. “There will eventually not be a need for private insurance,” she said.
“There are seniors in Iowa who get on a bus to go to Canada and get their medication,” Harris said. “This is an issue we can solve.”
The forum was moved from a Davenport hotel to the Bettendorf convention center because a larger venue was needed. “A lot of people thought that was a crazy idea,” AARP Iowa Director Brad Anderson said. “But sometimes it is the craziest ideas that captures people’s attention.”