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House Committees Debate, Vote on Prescription Drug Bill

AARP national volunteer president urges Congress to act now

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En español | Dozens of lawmakers on three congressional committees heard testimony and debated a House of Representatives leadership bill that would allow Medicare to negotiate prices for some expensive medicines and cap out-of-pocket expenses for enrollees.

Under the measure, HR 3, called the Lower Drug Costs Now Act of 2019, the secretary of health and human services would negotiate prices for at least 25 of the most expensive brand-name medicines. The bill would also cap out-of-pocket prescription drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries at $2,000 per year.

Lawmakers on the Education and Labor Committee voted 27-21 to approve the bill, and the Energy and Commerce Committee voted 30-22 to send the bill to the House floor. The House Ways and Means panel voted 24-17 on Tuesday to send the measure to the full House. House leaders have said they plan to bring HR 3 to the floor in the coming weeks.

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In addition to the main provisions of the bill, which AARP supports, the organization's national volunteer president, Catherine Alicia Georges, urged the Ways and Means members to consider other improvements to Medicare, such as coverage for dental, vision and hearing care. Covering such benefits is important in enabling older adults to remain in their homes as they age, she said.

"The lack of coverage for these important health benefits leads to worse health outcomes for older Americans and could actually cause higher Medicare spending,” Georges, who is a nurse, said in her testimony. “In order to achieve the best possible health outcomes, and the greatest value, Medicare should cover the entire person – from head to toe."

The Ways and Means hearing largely focused on how the bill would lower prices for consumers and whether it would inhibit pharmaceutical companies from developing new prescription drugs.

"Drug companies try to scare patients by telling us that if we lower drug prices by even a nickel, innovation will come to a screeching halt,” said Samantha Reid, a woman with Crohn's disease, who said the main drug she takes to control her illness costs more than $6,000 per dose. “But that's just not true. The drug industry enjoys some of the highest profits in the world — roughly two to three times the average of the S&P 500 — and spends most of it on expenses outside of research and development."

In its initial analysis of the legislation last week, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that HR 3 would save Medicare $345 billion over a decade, reducing costs for the prescription drug program by about 25 percent. The partial review also said that patients would save $158 billion over that period.

At the same time, the CBO report estimates that eight to 15 fewer drugs would get to market over the next decade. However, during that same period, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would likely approve about 300 new drugs.

"Savings from this bill could be devoted to research and development,” said Mark Miller, an executive vice president of health care at Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy. Miller is a former executive director of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), an advisory group to the program. “There's still a lot of dollars here in the market,” Miller said, adding that pharmaceutical companies “will have a strong motivation to continue R & D” and are not going to walk away from this lucrative market.

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