Biden's call to action on drug pricing draws applause, but don't expect reform from a deadlocked Congress

Patients for Affordable Drugs TV ad Joe Biden screenshot
President Joe Biden used drug pricing reform as a campaign pledge and he reiterated his stance on Wednesday. But his American Families Plan does little to address the issue. (Patients for Affordable Drugs)

President Joe Biden’s remarks on drug pricing during his first State of the Union address struck the right tone and drew a standing ovation. But the message rang hollow to many considering Biden’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan includes no major proposals on the issue.

“Let’s give Medicare the power to save hundreds of billions of dollars by negotiating lower drug prescription prices,” Biden said. “It won’t just help people on Medicare. It will lower prescription drug costs for everyone.”

Cue the applause.

But Biden’s actions fall short of those energizing words. The only provision in Biden’s American Families Plan that deals with healthcare is $200 billion earmarked for subsidies to those who purchase their own health insurance. 

By not including drug pricing reforms in his American Families Plan, Biden is leaving the contentious issue up to a bitterly divided Congress, where action is far from certain. Still, some drug pricing advocates are holding out hope.

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Like other politicians, Biden campaigned on lowering drug prices. Now, he's facing opposition from within his party for failing to take meaningful policy action. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) lead a contingent in Congress who are urging the administration to include healthcare reform in the plan.

Over the last week, Biden received separate written appeals from 17 senators and more than 80 House representatives to drop the age for Medicare eligibility from 65, expand the services covered by Medicare and allow the government to negotiate drug prescription prices.

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During his election campaign, Biden used healthcare reform to gain support and draw a clear line of demarcation between his platform and that of then-President Trump. Biden promised to push a public health-insurance option and to cut Medicare eligibility to age 60.   

“The president has been very, very clear that he remains fully committed to negotiations to reduce prescription drug prices––that, you will hear him reiterate as a very top priority and something he deems urgent,” an unnamed White House official told CNBC.  

But reforms, while long a popular political cause, haven't gained momentum in Washington over the last several years. Despite his words, Biden’s policy proposal on Wednesday indicates that drug pricing and other industry reforms are far from becoming reality.