Drug prices a bipartisan bright spot following midterms, experts say

Although the results of the midterms signal a likely end to much of the uncertainty in healthcare policy caused by partisan wrangling the past couple of years, experts say it's likely Democrats and Republicans will find at least incremental ways to work together ahead of the 2020 presidential race.

Although the results of the midterms signal a likely end to the uncertainty caused by partisan wrangling for the next couple of years, experts say there is room for Democrats and Republicans to make at least incremental changes ahead of the 2020 presidential race.

Drug prices especially could offer an opportunity for legislators to reach across the aisle and pass some incremental measures, said Chris Jennings, founder and president of Jennings Policy Strategies.

Jennings, who also advised on health policy in both the Obama and Clinton administrations, said that anything legislative on drug prices would likely target two pricing levers that the Trump administration has already homed in on: increasing competition and dealing with products that abuse monopolies.

This is likely, as drug prices have been a key talking point for members of both parties, he said. “There’s only so long you can claim to do something about it without doing something about it,” Jennings said.

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Jennings met with reporters Tuesday morning as part of an event hosted by the Alliance for Health Policy.

That there could be some action on drug prices is more likely with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, set to take over as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. That “changes the politics” of drug pricing reform substantially, said Doug Holtz-Eakin, Ph.D., president of the American Action Forum.

Holtz-Eakin, an economist who served as a past director of the Congressional Budget Office and advised the late John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign on economic issues, said that Congress could strengthen the Federal Trade Commission’s ability to address marketplace abuse by pharmaceutical companies, a move that would likely have backing from both parties.

The Food and Drug Administration has made addressing these pricing monopolies a cornerstone of its role in the White House’s greater drug price blueprint. The FDA has launched new guidance aimed at boosting generic competition and launched a website that posted details on branded products that generic drugmakers have trouble obtaining.

Jennings said that a “thoughtfully applied” referencing pricing policy in the federal insurance programs wasn’t out of the question. It’s a change that would hopefully spur significant updates in the private payer space, he said.

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Congress could also take a look at subsidies that pharmaceutical companies receive for direct-to-consumer advertising, Jennings said.

Though drug prices are the biggest bipartisan bright spot, Jennings said that both parties are also interested in a national reinsurance policy, and that could see action ahead of the next election cycle.

Otherwise, a divided Congress is likely to do little of substance on healthcare, both Jennings and Holtz-Eakin said. As incremental steps aren’t likely to address the need to bend the healthcare cost curve, Jennings said it will mostly be “chasing our tail” on health policy.

“None of that sets up anybody to do any real legislation,” Holtz-Eakin said.