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Drug Price Debate Lets Trump Reclaim “Free Market” from Donor Class

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

When it comes to drug prices, Republicans have a fever, and the only prescription is less donorism.

Fortunately, that medicine is zooming toward the GOP like a spoonful of cough syrup for an afflicted child. Here comes the airplane, and it’s got “TRUMP” on the side.

The president could soon have a clear flight path. While huge chunks of official Washington have remained mired in often pointless controversy over the past few weeks, one bit of bipartisanship still managed to occur. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) will soon meet with the president to discuss remedies to high drug prices. Cummings could emerge with a battle plan worked out with Trump. If so, it would confirm that, despite the president’s meeting with drug company executives last week, Trump is not going to hedge on his aggressive approach.

Not that there was much chance of that anyway. The president barely flinched  during the aforementioned meeting, calling out the assembled executives for their “astronomical pricing,” and vowing that “we have no choice” but to get it reduced. To be fair, the president did offer to slice regulations and taxes for the industry’s benefit, but hey, a spoonful of sugar, etc.

All reform-minded Republicans should be cheered by the prospect of Trump and Cummings collaborating, Art of the Deal-style, on this issue. While Left-wing Democrat fantasies about European socialized medicine bear much responsibility for derailing cooperation between the parties, the GOP isn’t blameless. The continuing Republican obtuseness on the drug price issue has been one of the great blind spots of the pre-Trump party.

Many Republicans falsely believe that the high prices enjoyed by the pharmaceutical industry are a creation of the free market, and they are loath to tamper with them on libertarian grounds.

However, those prices exist largely due to pharma abusing government granted monopoly powers,  and to corporate welfare (often folded quietly into bills pushing the socialized medicine fantasy).  The industry enjoys a huge, unquestioned ability to name its price in taxpayer dollars from Medicare. To call high drug prices the result of the free market, rather than government distortions, is a plain and simple lie.

Unfortunately, it’s an untruth that has been far too convenient for Republican congressmen to believe, given that the industry often favors them with lavish donations.  In 2016, pharma donated $15 million to Republicans in Congress, compared with $12 million for Democrats. With money like that, it’s easy to shrug your shoulders and say “the free market hath spoken.”

It was not always the case that Republicans treated pharma with this level of deference. During the George H. W. Bush administration, Republicans (along with Democrats) were all too happy to craft a measure aimed at indirectly negotiating lower prices, at least in a relatively limited sphere. That measure was the 340B drug pricing program, which stipulated that in order for pharmaceutical companies to sell to the Medicaid and Medicare Part B markets, they had to sell drugs at lower prices to hospitals that serve poorer populations. That includes children’s hospitals, safety-net hospitals and rural hospitals. Obviously, requiring conditions for access to taxpayer dollars is hardly socialist.

With the avalanche of money that pharma has spent on lobbying and its recent Republican tilt, it’s hard to see how drug pricing could get a fair hearing in Congress. You know, barring some unforeseen Black Swan event, like a random independently wealthy outsider seizing the presidency and holding pharma accountable on behalf of consumers, donations be damned.

Oh. Wait.

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