Think a Democrat-led House will only focus on drug pricing proposals? Sorry, pharma. Think again

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In U.S. midterm elections on Tuesday, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives while Republicans held the Senate. (Pixabay)

After intense buildup, Democrats retook the House of Representatives but failed to seize the Senate. And the results have already brought new promises from House leaders to tackle drug prices.

But that’s not the only fight pharma faces. Some new headaches are coming, too.

Whether a divided Congress will pass legislation on drug prices remains to be seen, but the Trump administration—which has been focused on the highly political topic—could work with Democrats to post a legislative win in advance of the 2020 presidential race.

After the results, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said her party will “take real, very strong legislative action to negotiate down the price of prescription drugs that is burdening seniors and families across America.”

Wells Fargo analyst David Maris has been talking about drug prices for years, and on Wednesday wrote that it’s not a safe assumption the results are a positive for pharma, despite the Republicans’ strong hold on the Senate.

"We think 2019-2020 could be a very healthcare-focused Congress with intensifying uncertainty during the next presidential election cycle,” he wrote. “With Democrats running key committees—including Elijah Cummings, who has been focused on healthcare and who will now head the Oversight Committee—we believe that drug prices and healthcare will stay a hot topic.”

Plus, Maris said he believes Democrats will now push its Medicare-for-all platform, and Republicans “will need to show progress on drug prices and healthcare transparency in order to mute the argument.” It’s possible the two parties could work together on healthcare issues, but his team believes it’s “more likely we will see a continuation of the battle as both try to address a topic on voter minds: the cost of drugs.”

Indeed, drug prices are one healthcare issue both parties agree on. Consider one Senate race in particular where drug prices were a key issue. In New Jersey, former Celgene CEO Bob Hugin lost to Democratic incumbent Robert Menendez. After the votes were counted, Menendez told supporters the result was a “victory of hope over hate, for facts over fiction, for inclusion over division, for hard work over ripping people off,” according to The New York Times, the latter phrase a reference to Hugin’s stint as Celgene CEO.

Even if legislation is slow to materialize, pharma faces a downbeat couple of years, one expert said. Before the midterms, pharma watchers figured that if Democrats flipped the House and Republicans kept the Senate, gridlock could benefit drugmakers. But Cowen Washington Research Group’s healthcare and pharma managing director, Rick Weissenstein, noted that the result would mean “a constant drumbeat of hearings and bad press” as Democrats could move to subpoena drugmakers for R&D costs and more. But, he added, Democrats would have to take the Senate for real action on prices.

In the first two years of Trump's presidency, there’s been considerable talk and, more recently, some action on drug prices. The FDA has approved a record number of generic drugs in an effort to reduce prices, and HHS is pushing for prices in TV advertising. The administration is also looking to reduce certain prices in the U.S. to international levels, among other efforts.