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

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna have released a bill calling for HHS to force generics when branded drugs cost more in the U.S. than in 5 other countries. (Sanders.Senate.Gov)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has spent years railing at the pharma industry, touting a series of proposals to control costs—each typically opposed by the industry. Now, his latest initiative aims to keep a lid on prices by threatening generic competition if drug makers charge more in the U.S. than in certain other countries. 

The proposal, called the Prescription Drug Price Relief Act, directs the HHS secretary to break patents and allow generic competition when branded drugs cost more in the U.S. than their median price in Canada, the U.K., Germany, France and Japan. Sanders is working on the bill with Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif.

Sanders and Khanna’s proposal focuses in on the spread between U.S. prices and drug costs internationally, a frequent topic of conversation for President Donald Trump. After criticizing “global freeloading,” Trump's administration recently unveiled an initiative to lower Medicare Part B prices closer to international levels over several years by using an index of more than a dozen countries.  

The new bill will face opposition and an uncertain future, and it could become just the latest drug pricing proposal to stall under gridlock. But it does at least signal that Democrats aren’t done talking about drug prices after the party picked up control of the House of Representatives this month.  

After the midterms, Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi said her party would “take real, very strong legislative action to negotiate down the price of prescription drugs that is burdening seniors and families across America.” And looking forward, it remains a possibility that the Trump administration could work with Democrats on drug pricing, as the issue has been a priority for both parties.

Aside from that possibility, pharma could face another headache after the midterms. With Democrats taking control of House committees, lawmakers could start up investigations and subpoena drug makers for R&D costs, marketing expenses and more, an analyst previously pointed out.

Sanders, for his part, has been a thorn in pharma’s side for years. He’s supported importation and pushed for limits to pricing on products that received support from taxpayer funding. He criticized Sanofi’s Zika vaccine development deal with the U.S. Army, calling for pricing restrictions, among many other dealings with the industry. 

During 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, among other initiatives. The administration released its drug pricing blueprint in May, which calls for more negotiation and competition, lower list prices and lower out-of-pocket costs.