Two Democratic congressmen say President Trump told them privately Wednesday that he would support their bill to allow the government to negotiate on behalf of Medicare when buying prescription drugs.
After a nearly hour-long meeting with Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Reps. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.) and Peter Welch (Vt.) said they had procured the president's support for their measure.
" 'I’m going to join with you' — those are his exact words — to make this happen," Cummings said in a post-meeting conference call. "He felt that it was important that we address this issue head on. As a matter of fact, I would again describe his position as being enthusiastic."
Cummings said Trump also asked Price to review their proposal.
In a statement, the White House said Trump wanted to work together in a bipartisan fashion to make prescription drugs more affordable, but the statement did not specifically say that the president would support the bill they left for him to review. The White House declined to provide further details.
The congressmen were joined by Redonda Miller, president of Johns Hopkins Hospital, as they made their case to Trump and Price. The trio talked about the toll soaring drug prices were taking on Americans and presented a proposal that would allow the government to negotiate in Medicare's prescription drug program.
Trump has signaled repeatedly that he will take action to reduce drug prices, but he has not yet offered specifics. And although the Republican health-care bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act did not include relief on drug prices, the issue was on his mind Tuesday.
The government is forbidden from negotiating on prescription drug prices in Medicare's prescription drug program, called Part D. Instead, a handful of companies, called pharmacy benefit managers, negotiate discounts on behalf of patients covered by their plans.
The bill represents a long-sought goal of Democrats and is significant because it would not only let the government to negotiate on drug prices, but also allow the government to establish a formulary — a list of covered drugs that could significantly increase the government's bargaining position.
In the past, the Congressional Budget Office has said that simply allowing the government to negotiate, alone, would have a "negligible" effect on total drug spending. But if the government were able to create a formulary — where some drugs may be covered less favorably or not at all — it could result in significant discounts. This could also put the government in the tricky position of picking drugs to include and exclude, which could open it up to criticism from patients who demand a drug that is not included.
Holly Campbell, a spokeswoman for PhRMA, the trade group for the biopharmaceutical industry, said that she had not seen the specific proposal and could not comment on it.
"We have always said there is significant price negotiation that already occurs within the Medicare prescription drug program," Campbell said in a statement. "Large, powerful purchasers negotiate discounts and rebates directly with manufacturers, saving money for both beneficiaries and taxpayers."
When Price was in Congress, he opposed Medicare negotiation on drug prices, calling it "a solution in search of a problem," according to the New York Times.
But Cummings and Welch said that Trump was undeterred, even when they brought up the fact that Republicans were likely to oppose their bill.
"We told the president we weren’t expecting any major support from the Republicans, and the president basically said this is something that’s important to him, and he looked at Price and he said, 'I want you to get this done. Period,' " Cummings said.
Welch said that the conversation wasn't a negotiating session in which policy details were hammered out, but he called the meeting a promising interaction. The meeting was scheduled for a half-hour, but stretched to 50 minutes.
"What he can do is critical, because he can send a clear signal to Republicans that it’s safe to support legislation that would allow the federal government to negotiate better prices for the taxpayers," said Welch, who noted that he has been introducing similar legislation for the past eight years. "One of the reasons I think it’s so popular with Republicans and Democrats is it just doesn’t make sense to people that if you buy wholesale, you pay retail. And the idea you can't negotiate, to get a better price, is so in conflict with basic Republican doctrine about the free market."
Miller, the Johns Hopkins Hospital executive, explained the toll that drug prices take on patients and businesses. In a statement after the meeting, she pointed out that her hospital was experiencing price increases of as much as 1,000 percent on some medicines.
Cummings added that he was surprised when Trump brought up a bill that would allow for drugs to be imported from Canada as a way to deal with high drug prices. Trump expressed support for the bill, which Cummings and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced last week, with the condition that there would be safety protections in place to ensure that imported drugs weren't unsafe or counterfeit.