Vermont Democratic Congressman Peter Welch is optimistic after having President Donald Trump's ear last week week on controlling drug prices. But others in Congress are dubious that the president was swayed by the Democrat's argument.
President Trump brought in Rep. Welch for a small group meeting to discuss the high cost of prescription drugs. Welch reports having a receptive audience with the leader of the free world who has promised to save you money — from the cost of new military airplanes to those pills you need every once in a while.
“The statements he made in there that indicated one, he understands we’re getting ripped off. The prices are too high. And two, he seemed to understand a lot of people that voted for him are really burdened by drug prices,” Welch said. “So what he said in that meeting was positive with respects to trying to get some price negotiations and lower drug prices.”
Welch remains skeptical, though — not necessarily of the president, but of those whom he’s surrounded himself with. For instance, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price also sat in on the meeting, and he’s long been viewed as an ally of Big Pharma.
Price's position wasn’t lost on Welch, who is rooting for Trump to change his party’s tone on drug prices.
“The reality is, he also has a wall of resistance on the Republican side,” Welch says. “Like, Secretary Price was with him, and he’s been a longtime opponent, so we left him our bill and he instructed Price to take a look at it and get back to us with feedback.”
“So we’ll see what happens, but in terms of what he said, it was very explicit that he knows that we’re paying too much, and the idea that Medicare program buys wholesale but pays retail prices doesn’t make sense.”
It may be an uphill battle to get Republicans on board, though. There are a handful of doctors in the party, like Texas Rep. Michael Burgess, who seem to trump President Trump when it comes to influencing the party’s rank and file.
Burgess argues there’s no big savings in shaking down drug companies. He says it doesn’t work.
“It doesn’t,” he says. “We’ve looked at it several different ways and it doesn’t.”
Maryland Republican Rep. Andy Harris says pharmacy benefit managers, companies that manage prescription drug programs for commercial health plans or self-insured companies, already negotiate Medicare Part D – the prescription drug benefit passed under the second President Bush.
“You may be actually be buying a policy from a company that actually may insure more people than Medicare, so to believe that their negotiating ability is not going to be as good as Medicare’s is just not believable unless you bring the force of the government into the negotiation,” Rep. Harris says. “That is, it’s not a true negotiation, it’s actually a price fixing.”
Those Republicans are the ones President Trump needs to get on board if he hopes to overhaul the nation’s drug pricing system. Welch believes Trump gets it, but he says he has to push his party to the left on the issue.
“If the president came down hard and said something that everybody knows just on a common sense basis: ‘If you’re buying wholesale, you shouldn’t pay retail. You ought to bargain to get the best price you can, everybody knows that’s true.’ And I think if the president said that explicitly, it would give a lot of permission to some of my Republican colleagues to go with their opposition and do something to help folks in their districts that are getting hammered with high prescription drug prices.”
Others remain skeptical, like Sen. Bernie Sanders. He says he doubts most every word that comes out of Trump’s mouth.
“So that he is saying that he is interested in doing that, is a good thing. We will see in fact what he ends up doing,” Sanders says. “But what Trump says on Monday is not necessarily what he does on Tuesday.”
Sanders is asking the president to put his money where his mouth is and to get behind his bill to slash the price of prescription drugs.
“Trump has talked about, correctly so, the high price of prescription drugs. I have introduced legislation that will allow American consumers, pharmacists, and distributors to purchase lower costs medicine in Canada and other countries around the world. If the president is serious about lowering the cost of prescription drugs, he will come on board that legislation,” Sanders says.
The Vermont congressional delegation does seem united upon one point: There's something in President Trump’s rhetoric for everyone to latch onto. But now everyone's waiting to see what he throws his weight behind.
Matt Laslo is a reporter based in Washington, D.C. He has been covering Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court since 2006.