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Kamala Harris announces plan on drug prices as Democratic health-care debate intensifies

Sen. Kamala Harris gestures while speaking at a house party in Gilford, N.H., on Sunday. (Cheryl Senter/AP)

Sen. Kamala D. Harris announced a plan Tuesday intended to shrink prescription drug prices in the United States to the same levels as in other developed countries, making the announcement ahead of an appearance at an AARP forum expected to focus largely on health care.

Under Harris’s plan, the Department of Health and Human Services would set a “fair price” for every drug that costs more in the United States than elsewhere, or whose price has increased more than inflation in a given year.

The “fair price” could not exceed the cost of the drug in member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of industrialized nations that includes Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and others. Companies whose prices are too high would have to send customers a rebate.

Harris’s rollout comes as divisions among Democrats on health care — a subject that polls suggest voters care deeply about — are surging further into public view. On Monday, former vice president Joe Biden released a plan to expand the Affordable Care Act, in the process taking shots at Harris and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who favor a more sweeping Medicare-for-all system.

Like many of Harris’s plans, this one accounts for the possibility of a congressional stalemate by outlining potential executive actions Harris could take without Congress’s approval. Should legislation stall, Harris promises to launch investigations into higher-priced drugs and publish the findings, then demand that drug companies drop those prices within 30 days.

If they do not comply, Harris says she would direct HHS to import those drugs. The HHS secretary currently has narrow authority to implement a program allowing pharmacists and wholesalers to import prescription drugs from Canada — provided the secretary can certify that the importation would pose no health risk and would offer “significant reduction in the cost” to American buyers. Historically, safety concerns have prevented secretaries from giving such approval.

Harris has at times fostered confusion about her position on health care, particularly on the role she envisions for private insurance. She has recently tried to make clear that her vision of Medicare-for-all means that private insurance would largely be sidelined, except for elective procedures or supplemental coverage.

The issue of rising drug prices has been a growing focus of both Democrats and Republicans in recent months. President Trump has announced a series of initiatives to tackle the problem, though few have come to fruition, and several of the Democratic presidential hopefuls have also announced plans.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study released in February found that 3 in 10 Americans do not take their prescribed medications due to cost. A separate study showed that 1 in 5 Americans has trouble paying for food and housing because of the costs of their prescription drugs.

The presidential candidates are now providing more details of their health-care blueprints, as AARP holds a series of forums for the presidential candidates across Iowa this week and the second Democratic debate looms at the end of the month.

Harris argues that her plan is practical and politically achievable, a message she has been pushing more in recent weeks.

“Let’s get stuff done,” Harris said to a packed high school cafeteria in Somersworth, N.H., on Sunday, reprising a refrain she hopes will set her apart as someone who will find ways to address issues whether Congress takes action or not.

Harris is also trying to convince voters that her record as a prosecutor shows she can stand up to institutions that try to make such action more difficult.

Her proposal, for example, includes punitive measures for drug companies that are particularly resistant to cutting prices. Harris says she would rely on her legal authority as president to revoke the patent of a product created with the help of government funding, and give it instead to a company that would sell the drug at a fairer price.

On Sunday in New Hampshire, Harris told a crowd of around 900 that she also plans to sue pharmaceutical companies for their role in fostering opioid addiction. Harris won settlements from GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, and other pharmaceutical companies for questionable pricing and marketing practices during her time as California attorney general.