Campaign advisers were updating Trump at the White House on Thursday on polling from battleground states, including Florida, that showed which party voters trusted more on various issues. One of those issues was health care, which often polls as the top voter concern, and the data showed the public trusted Democrats more than Republicans.
Trump reacted furiously and said the Democrats would “kill us” on health care, according to the four people, who requested anonymity to candidly describe the private meeting. The president then picked up the phone, called Azar and put him on speakerphone in the middle of the meeting, the people said.
“You’re not getting it done,” Trump told Azar, referring to lowering drug prices, according to one of the people in the meeting and another briefed on the discussion. He told Azar he needed to “hurry up” on lowering drug prices and more quickly allow for the importation of drugs from Canada. “Why aren’t we getting these drugs from Canada?”
Azar reminded Trump he had rolled out a final rule allowing states, distributors and wholesalers to import select drugs from Canada during a December event in Florida with Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has pushed for the policy for months. Azar emphasized to the president that he also wanted the rule done as fast as possible and noted the rule was in the middle of a 75-day comment period and that other states had expressed interest in it.
Trump has often fixated on lowering drug prices, especially as the 2020 presidential campaign approaches, because health care and prescription drug prices consistently poll as top voter concerns. Yet lowering drug prices is a byzantine and glacial process with powerful, entrenched industry interests.
Democrats won control of the House in 2018 on a message to protect and strengthen the Affordable Care Act after Republicans repeatedly tried to repeal and replace the sweeping health reform law that extended health insurance to 20 million Americans. House Democrats also passed an ambitious bill late last year to lower drug prices by allowing Medicare to directly negotiate the prices of up to 250 drugs.
Some Republicans worry Democrats have maintained the upper hand on health care and will replicate their 2018 success in 2020 if Republicans do not have a strong health-care message of their own.
“We do not comment on conversations or meetings between Secretary Azar and the president,” HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said in a statement. “The Trump administration has done more than any other administration in history to lower the high cost of prescription drugs and we fully anticipate this momentum will continue.”
Trump also asked Azar for an update on HHS’s work on lowering drug pricing, and the two discussed the fact that drug importation was popular with the public. They also shared frustration about the number of health-care regulations that had been stopped by the courts — including a rule that would require drugmakers to post the list prices of their medications in television ads and state requirements that Medicaid recipients work to maintain their coverage — and by the lack of media coverage of the administration’s health-care and drug pricing policies.
Azar told Trump he was doing everything he could but that much of his work was being stopped or hampered.
Trump also complained that he should have never taken on vaping as a political issue. After he first announced a ban in the fall on most flavors, he vacillated for several months after seeing campaign poling before settling on a more limited ban earlier this month. Trump implied he should have just left the issue to the Food and Drug Administration, the people said.
The existence of a phone call between the two men on Thursday was first reported by the New York Times.
“There’s no daylight between the White House and HHS as we work to implement the president’s policies and improve the American health care system for everyone,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. “While the radical left has sweeping proposals for a total government takeover of health care that will eliminate private insurance for 180 million Americans, the Trump administration has achieved real solutions that are providing Americans with the options and control they want.”