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Drug Pricing, Social Security Are Center Stage at Second AARP Candidate Forum

3 Democrats in Bettendorf, Iowa, spotlight differences in their plans




BETTENDORF, IOWA — High prescription drug prices and the solvency of Social Security were top issues at AARP’s second presidential candidate forum Tuesday at the Waterfront Convention Center here.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) appeared separately before an audience of AARP members. They each fielded questions from moderators from the Des Moines Register and Radio Iowa and from an AARP member. AARP is sponsoring these forums with the Register as part of its commitment to voter education and engagement.

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Early Tuesday, Harris released her plan to lower prescription drug prices. Under her proposal, the federal government would set a “fair price” for any medication that cost more in the United States than in other countries or for drugs whose price increased by more than the rate of inflation. All profits pharmaceutical companies make from selling a drug above the fair price would be taxed at 100 percent, with the revenue from those taxes going to consumers as rebates.

For Lin Davis, the concern over the skyrocketing cost of prescription medicines hits home. “I am on a specialty drug for multiple sclerosis,” Davis, 72, of Bettendorf, told Harris. Davis said she had been paying $375 for a three-month supply by buying her medication from an independent pharmacy that charged her less than her Medicare Advantage insurance plan’s copay. That pharmacy, she said, “has been bought out by a larger chain. Now, the cost for the same drug, through insurance, is over $600 for the same generic drug.” Davis asked the California senator how she plans to reduce such costs.

“People are making a lot of money off selling drugs,” Harris said, after detailing her plan. “They are not going to give that up easily.” But, she added, “We can solve this. It’s going to take strong and courageous leadership at the highest levels of government to change this.”

Before the presidential candidates forum began, Davis said that she wanted to question Harris on the prescription drug issue because the costs have put a strain on her and her husband’s retirement resources and she knows that many people cannot afford the kind of specialty drug she takes. Because of her MS, Davis said, she needs that medicine to be able to walk.

Gillibrand said that under her health plan Medicare would negotiate for the lowest price for every drug, and if price gouging continued she would use antitrust laws and other regulations to go after drug manufacturers that raise prices. She also said she would work to bring more generics to the market. “If a drug company will not produce a generic within a reasonable amount of time, we will ask NIH [the National Institutes of Health] to produce that generic,” Gillibrand said.

Castro said he would allow Medicare to directly negotiate prices with drugmakers and would also support importing drugs safely from other countries, such as Canada. “We should have an America,” he said, “where people can get prescription drugs at the same rate as in other countries.”

Retirement security and the continued viability of Social Security and Medicare was uppermost on AARP member and retired business manager Ron Maday’s mind Tuesday. “My wife and I rely on our Social Security and Medicare to live,” Maday, 67, of Bettendorf, said to Castro. “We both have preexisting conditions, so making sure our health conditions are covered and affordable to treat is essential.” Maday asked Castro what he would do “to ensure Medicare and Social Security are secure and sustainable for the people like myself who are receiving it, and for the younger Americans who are going to need it just as much?”

“Part of the answer,” Castro said, “is to make sure we have a young, vibrant, healthy workforce to support Social Security in the future,” adding that he would “significantly increase” the cap on the payroll taxes that fund the majority of the Social Security system. In 2019, Americans pay Social Security taxes on the first $133,000 of their annual income. Castro said he is still developing his position on how much that cap should be raised.

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Gillibrand said she would “erase the cap. I believe we should figure out a way to make sure people at all income levels buy into Social Security.” She also said she believes there should a minimum $1,500 monthly Social Security benefit for all recipients. “The benefits are much too low,” Gillibrand said. Harris said she supports legislation that would require people pay Social Security taxes on any income over $250,000 a year.

A former housing secretary, Castro talked about his idea to create a renter’s tax credit and to expand the federal housing choice voucher program. “We have a rental affordability crisis in this country,” Castro said. “My plan would also invest in creating more housing supply.”

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