Pharma back in hot seat as 2020 presidential election gets into gear

Drug prices
The first Democratic presidential debates took place this week, with numerous candidates blasting pharmaceutical companies. (Getty/Charles Wollertz)

Once again, we're watching presidential debates with too many candidates to fit on one stage. And once again, pharma is proving itself an easy target.

As the first Democratic presidential debates kicked off this week, candidates took numerous shots at drugmakers in an early sign the industry will face plenty of tough questions throughout the 2020 cycle. The candidates blasted corporate power in the U.S. in general—and pharma in particular, using words like "corruption" and "greed."

They raised some familiar ideas for cracking down on drug prices, including Medicare price negotiations. And as one might expect, they vowed to take action against pharma, rather than just talk about it.

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren said the current economic setup has benefited “giant drug companies” and other industries, but it hasn’t helped regular citizens. 

“When you've got a government, when you've got an economy that does great for those with money and isn't doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple,” she said. 

Sen. Cory Booker said pharma companies "often have monopolistic holds on drugs" and use that power to raise prices. The senator’s state is home to several of the top drugmakers worldwide, including Merck & Co. and Johnson & Johnson. He's pledged to not take pharma's contributions this election cycle.

Drugmakers have hiked prices routinely for years, and critics have spent years pushing back. Politicians have made plans to lower prices and spent considerable time debating the issue, but Sen. Bernie Sanders said now is the time for action. 

RELATED: Never mind last week's hikes. Pharma still puts pricing at the top of its worry list: report 

“And here is the answer, nothing will change unless we have the guts to take on Wall Street, the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the military industrial complex and the fossil fuel industry,” he said. “If we don’t have the guts to take them on, we will continue to have plans, we will continue to have talk, and rich will get richer and everybody else will be struggling.”

Numerous candidates said the government should negotiate drug prices for Medicare. Marianne Williamson said the fact that the government can’t negotiate prices “was just part of the regular corruption by which multinational corporations have their way with us.” Former Vice President Joe Biden agreed that Medicare should negotiate drug prices. 

Sanders, a frequent pharma critic, blasted the industry's “greed” and said the “function of healthcare” in the U.S. is to generate billions in profits, not “provide quality care in a cost-effective way.”

RELATED: Lawmakers field bill that would tie U.S. drug prices to prices abroad—or threaten generic action

Opioids made it into the discussion on Wednesday as well. Booker and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke each said opioid drugmakers should be held liable for the nation’s opioid epidemic. At a time when 2.3 million Americans are behind bars, some for drug possession, Purdue Pharma has been “able to act with complete impunity,” O’Rourke said.

This week’s debates were only the first of many during the presidential election cycle, and whichever candidate wins the primary will face off against the Republican nominee—almost certainly President Donald Trump—next fall for the presidency. Shortly after his election, the president said pharma was “getting away with murder” and pledged to lower prices. His administration has worked to reform drug rebates and forced drug prices into TV ads, among other efforts, but so far, drug prices have climbed during the Trump presidency. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar hit at Trump's drug pricing approach on Wednesday, saying that his comments combined with rising drug prices are "all foam and no beer."

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