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Democrats refocus attention on drug prices after Oregon primary shakeup

Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) speaks at a Capitol Hill news conference in July 2019. Schrader trails in the Democratic primary, where his views on prescription drug pricing became a major issue. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader has long served as a reliable ally of the pharmaceutical industry inside an increasingly hostile Democratic Party.

As scores of House colleagues called for legislation that would allow Medicare to negotiate the prices it pays those companies — which promised to drive down costs at the pharmacy counter but decimate the U.S. drug industry’s roughly $550 billion in yearly revenue — Schrader was among a small handful of Democrats who pushed back, and he played a key role last year in narrowing his party’s efforts.

Now Schrader’s political career is hanging by a gossamer thread after a primary opponent, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, made the congressman’s opposition to the Democrats’ marquee drug-pricing bill a central issue in her campaign. His potential loss has rekindled interest on Capitol Hill in pushing through prescription drug legislation before the midterm elections, when Democrats are at risk of losing their congressional majorities and any chance at the sort of aggressive policy they have promised in their campaigns since at least 2006.

“It is a wake-up call across the country on the importance of taking steps to hold down the cost of medicine,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D), a fellow Oregonian, a longtime advocate for Medicare drug negotiation and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The talk has been further fueled by Democrats’ urgency to pass legislation — any legislation — that can address rising consumer prices, as well as recent comments from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who played the leading role last year in derailing Build Back Better, the Democratic megabill that was set to include drug-pricing legislation alongside climate, tax, child care and numerous other provisions.

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While Manchin has repeatedly declared Build Back Better dead since pulling the plug back in December, he has insisted he is still open to legislation dealing with prescription drug prices. In a brief interview last week, he said drug pricing would be “the easy lift” in any package that comes together in the coming months.

Appearing on Monday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Manchin said he saw drug-pricing legislation as a centerpiece of any potential Democratic bill, alongside provisions on inflation and energy.

But it is Schrader’s likely loss that has lit a fire under some Democrats who are anxious that it won’t just be Democratic voters who punish them at that ballot box this year for not fulfilling one of their central promises.

Interviews with key Democrats revealed a growing sense of desperation that action is necessary on drug prices, especially as inflation continues to weigh on the U.S. economy and Democrats’ hopes of salvaging their majorities in November. A group of 20 endangered swing-district House Democrats all but begged Wyden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to pass legislation in a letter this week.

“Just like you, we were sent to Washington on the promise that we’d tackle big issues and work to improve the lives of those we represent,” they wrote. “And what issue do we hear about at every town hall? At every event? The price of prescription drugs.”

While many Democrats, including Wyden, hesitated to single out Schrader’s actions, they said his election shows voters are frustrated with the inaction — and willing to punish those who appear to stand in the way.

“We’ve pledged again and again to lift this absurd restriction that keeps Medicare from negotiating to hold down the cost of medicine,” Wyden said last week. “I’ve had a thousand town meetings, and the opposition to negotiating lower prices of medicine must be in the witness protection program, because I can’t find them.”

Even the pharmaceutical industry’s critics acknowledge it isn’t Schrader’s fault that drug-pricing legislation was not enacted. In fact, he was part of a group of moderate Democrats who struck a deal with more liberal colleagues last November to advance a compromise — one that would allow the federal government to negotiate with drug companies, but only on a limited set of drugs.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who worked closely with Schrader as a leader of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, declined to comment on a circumstances surrounding Schrader’s race. But she said that those on the left flank of the party had “mischaracterized” his views.

Last year, Schrader was among a small group of Democrats who refused to advance the drug-pricing bill endorsed by House leadership, the Lower Drug Costs Now Act — at one point refusing to advance it in a key Energy and Commerce Committee vote. That opposition, as well as Senate opposition from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), led to the narrower compromise bill.

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While it appeared that legislation had universal support among Democrats, it was set to move alongside several other party priorities for procedural and strategic reasons. When Manchin pulled the plug on the larger package in December, drug pricing fell by the wayside.

“What he worked on actually was to help advance Democratic values and to do so in a way that was pragmatic that would actually become law,” Murphy said.

Without a bill passed into law, Schrader quickly found himself on the defensive back in Oregon. McLeod-Skinner made Schrader’s committee vote a focus of her campaign. In a television ad, the candidate drove a shredder over a giant-sized novelty check with “Big Pharma” written on it.

“Schrader has sold out to big pharma,” McLeod-Skinner said in the ad. “I’m running to lower prescription drug prices.”

Voters who saw Schrader’s spot were also seeing ads from Center Forward, a political action committee funded by the pharmaceutical industry. At the candidates’ brief televised debate, McLeod-Skinner repeatedly chastised Schrader for his role in the committee, saying that the pharma donations to his campaigns bought him off.

“He was the deciding vote against being able to bring down our prescription drug prices,” McLeod-Skinner said. “All those ads you’re seeing? That’s actually paid for by the profits of folks who have not seen prescription drug prices go down.”

Onstage, Schrader argued that he’d rescued prescription drug reform, by offering an alternative “that I helped develop and could actually pass the Senate,” emphasizing what was a watered-down version offered over what had been removed.

“I’m not beholden to any pharmaceutical company — I’ve taken them on,” he said, citing his efforts to combat price gouging by some pharmaceutical companies.

Schrader, who did not respond to interview requests, trails McLeod-Skinner by nearly 20 points as of Tuesday, with about three-quarters of ballots counted. While some forecasters have called the race for McLeod-Skinner, the Associated Press has not, due to thousands of uncounted mail ballots.

Another test is set to come June 7, when Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), another architect of the narrowed drug-pricing compromise, faces a primary that includes a more liberal challenger, Kylie Taitano, who has attacked him for his drug-pricing efforts. Taitano, however, has raised only a fraction of what McLeod-Skinner has raised and is running in an all-comers primary where voters of all parties, not just Democrats, will participate.

Meanwhile, those already elected are emphasizing the need for action, and many are pitching a drug-pricing bill as surefire inflation fighter.

“It was one thing when people were contending with these super high prices for their monthly dose of insulin, but now they’re dealing with that, and $5 gas, sky-high rent and food,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). “In this context, we actually have an obligation to start addressing the affordability challenges that folks are facing.”

The pharmaceutical industry, meanwhile, insists Democrats’ effort continue to be misplaced. While the compromise legislation may have unified Democrats, it is still opposed by PhRMA, the industry’s leading trade group, and by virtually all Republicans. Brian Newell, a PhRMA spokesman, pointed to Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that drug prices have not risen amid the rampant inflation elsewhere in the economy and said the Democratic proposals “would provide little relief to patients who are struggling to afford their medicines.”

“What voters need are for lawmakers to work toward common-sense solutions that fix our broken insurance system and lower out-of-pocket costs for patients,” he said.

But to Democrats, the political imperatives are clear: “We have to do it because people need it to be done,” Welch said. “Politically, it’s wise to do it and political malpractice not to.”

Leigh Ann Caldwell and David Weigel contributed to this report.