This Is Your Party on Drugs: Can the Democrats Win on Prescription-Drug Prices?

By Confessore, Nicholas | The American Prospect, July 15, 2002 | Go to article overview

This Is Your Party on Drugs: Can the Democrats Win on Prescription-Drug Prices?


Confessore, Nicholas, The American Prospect


ABOUT THREE YEARS AGO, POLLSTER CELINDA Lake sat down with then-Representative Debbie Stabenow--a Michigan Democrat preparing to run for the Senate--to put together a campaign proposal for prescription drugs. Stabenow had already made headlines busing senior citizens across the border to buy affordable prescription drugs in Canada; she wanted to make high drug prices the focus of her campaign against Republican Spencer Abraham, a leading ally of the pharmaceutical industry. Lake's polling showed that people resented high drug prices enough that they were ready, even eager, for a plan that would tackle the issue head-off. "Why aren't we for price controls?" Stabenow wondered. "That's what everybody wants."

Everyone, that is, except the Democratic leadership, who thought campaigning on price control was too risky. Instead, Stabenow, like Democrats across the country, spent the summer and fall of 2000 campaigning on the details: co-pay percentages, premiums, and low-income subsidies. And like Democrats across the country, Stabenow discovered that when her opponent began to talk about his co-pay percentages, premiums, and low-income subsidies, voters could barely tell the two plans apart. Although she would later win a narrow 1-point victory, Stabenow's advantage on prescription drugs never recovered. Nationally, what should have been the Democrats' most potent issue ended up as a wash.

It didn't have to be. And it doesn't have to be today, either. Two years after the 2000 elections, with Stabenow heading up the Senate Democrats' prescription-drug task force and congressional Democrats preparing for a slate of tough fall campaigns, the party is still divided over how to win on the drug issue--and still behind the tide of public opinion. How the Democrats resolve their differences may well make the difference between winning and losing in November. "The message has to be simple and easily understandable," says Chuck Loveless, political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "And there has to be a clean line in the sand."

ON THE MERITS, THERE'S NO DOUBT THAT PRICE IS THE defining issue. Drug expenditures in the United States have doubled since 1993, and seniors now spend more on pills than on their doctor's bills. That's why the grandmother choosing between her groceries and her blood-pressure medication has become a staple of today's debate. But thanks to the sky-high cost of prescription drugs, no serious plan to provide a meaningful fraction of seniors with prescription coverage will be affordable without an effort to reduce the price of drugs.

Until now, however, price has been the third rail of the prescription-drug debate. Nobody wants to touch it. Why? Because it's the one issue on which the pharmaceutical industry has refused to budge. Drug companies have long argued that the high price of drugs simply reflected the cost of private research and development. No matter what the proposal--from closing the patent loopholes that have allowed drug companies to fend off cheaper generics, to granting Medicare the power to bargain directly with drug companies for lower prices--the industry has opposed it. Any effort to reduce prices, the industry has warned, and it would be forced to cut back on "R&D"--stifling innovation and hurting people in the long run.

Republicans have long lent a sympathetic ear to this argument. (In turn, they've received the bulk of the industry's contributions since 1990.) But many Democrats have also listened. Some are New Democrats who oppose price control on ideological grounds; others, such as New Jersey's Rush Holt and California's Anna Eshoo, represent districts packed with biotech companies. (Notably, most Democratic recipients of industry money are New Democrats.) Largely due to New Democrat opposition, the Democrats' proposals have never touched price. …

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