Bucks County Courier Times: Bill could lower drug prices to help expand Medicare subsidies

The Helping Seniors Afford Health Care was introduced by the three lawmakers on Tuesday and then rapidly advanced through the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday afternoon, along with the prescription drug measure.

Legislation to allow the federal government to negotiate down the prices of prescription drugs continued to advance toward a vote by the full U.S. House of Representatives and it’s projected savings will help pay for another measure making it easier for seniors to qualify for low-income Medicare subsidies.

The latter bill, known as the Helping Seniors Afford Health Care Act, was penned by New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim, D-3 of Burlington County, and fellow Democrats Dwight Evans, of Pennsylvania, and Lisa Blunt Rochester, of Delaware. It was introduced by the three lawmakers on Tuesday and then rapidly advanced through the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday afternoon, along with the prescription drug measure.

The bill aims to expand access to affordable health care by making it easier for seniors to qualify for subsidies provided by Medicare Savings Programs, which help pay for Medicare premiums, copayments, deductibles and other health care expenses.

Like Medicaid, the Medicare Savings Programs are state-run but funded by the federal government. The bill would expand eligibility by raising the income limits, making the help available to an additional 4.6 million people.

The bill would also allow people enrolled in the programs to continue to receive the assistance for 12 months regardless of fluctuations in their incomes and provide $50 million in grant money to states to perform outreach about the programs and the availability of enrollment help.

“For too many seniors, the question of whether or not they can afford health care isn’t a question of dollars and cents, it’s a question of life and death,” Kim said Tuesday when the legislation was first introduced. “This bill provides a lifeline to help seniors afford the care they need and will save the lives of those who depend on it.”

The measure was advanced from the Energy and Commerce Committee over Republican objections that it was being rushed through without subcommittee hearings, testimony or a Congressional Budget Office score on the measure’s projected costs.

“We cannot lose sight that Medicare is facing shortfalls,” Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce, said before the vote Thursday night.

Blunt Rochester countered that millions of low-income Medicare beneficiaries cannot afford their health care expenses.

“Losing nearly a quarter of a person’s income on health care costs can have a devastating financial impact,” she said Thursday night. “We can and we should do more to protect people with disabilities and our seniors.”

Kim and other Democrats said the projected savings the prescription drug pricing bill would cover the added expansion of benefits.

The drug pricing bill, numbered HR 3, requires the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate Medicare prices for many of the most expensive drugs — including insulin — using lower prices paid in other countries as a reference point. It’s expected to be renamed after the late Congressman Elijah Cummings.

Early projections are the change could lower the prices between 40% to 55%, and the bill would also allow private insurance plans to adopt Medicare’s price.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated the legislation would save Medicare $345 billion over seven years, partly because some seniors would no longer have to skimp on costly medicines, and they’d stay healthier. A separate estimate from nonpartisan analysts at the Department of Health and Human Services found that households would save $158 billion over 10 years.

New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, said its intent was to “stop drug companies from ripping off Americans.”

“The American people both Republicans and Democrats are rightfully outraged that they’re paying three, four or ten times more for the same drugs than people are paying in other countries,” the Democrat said at the onset of the committee hearing. ” I think it’s time we finally negotiate a better deal for the American people.”

Republicans worry the change would result in less research and development by pharmaceutical companies and fewer new drugs coming to market. Overall, the CBO estimated the measure could cut drug companies’ revenues by as much as $1 trillion over 10 years and likely result in between 8 and 15 fewer drugs will come to market.

“What if one of those is a cure for ALS or Alzheimer’s? Walden said Thursday. “None of us know which medicine or cure will not get invented. One new cure stopped is one too many.”

The Energy and Commerce Committee voted 30-22 to approve sending the bill to the House floor for debate. It was also approved Thursday by the House Education and Labor Committee after adopting an amendment from Rep. Donald Norcross, of New Jersey, that would prevent commercial employer plans from charging higher copays than the negotiated drug prices.

“Americans are crying out for relief from skyrocketing prescription drug costs, and this bill will lower drug prices for every patient struggling to afford their medications,” Norcross said in a statement after the vote. “Every American has a right to affordable healthcare and today we’re one step closer to that goal.”

The drug prices bill is expected to be considered by the House Ways and Means Committee next month and could come to the floor before the chamber’s November recess.

Its fate in the Republican-controlled Senate is far from certain though, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the chamber would not consider it.