Trump, amid COVID-19 response, touts new insulin savings program

Trump briefing
President Donald Trump unveiled a new drug pricing measure aimed at seniors on Medicare who use insulins. (Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Quite a lot has changed since President Donald Trump, as president-elect, said pharmaceutical companies were “getting away with murder." But as the 2020 election nears, his administration is still working to make its mark in drug pricing, an important political issue that's recently been overshadowed by the pandemic.

At a Rose Garden event Tuesday, Trump unveiled a new Senior Savings Model for insulin, which will allow seniors access to new savings through insurance plans that will become available through open enrollment this fall. The program, which is the result of negotiations between pharma companies, insurers and others, will cap Medicare insulin costs at $35 per month, the president said. 

Still, the program doesn't go as far as the administration's prior drug pricing promises, and Trump is pushing lawmakers to deliver other measures via legislation yet this year, Sen. Chuck Grassley said in a recent radio interview.

For years, seniors have faced uncertainty on insulin costs due to Medicare's various coverage phase—particularly the "donut hole" coverage gap between routine spending caps and catastrophic benefits. Aside from providing cost certainty, the new program will bring savings of $446 per patient per year on average, according to the president’s Tuesday remarks. 

Trump described the program as a “powerful action to lower healthcare costs for America’s seniors” at Tuesday’s event. He also took a jab at former Vice President Joe Biden, his presumptive opponent for the presidential election in the fall, saying that “Sleepy Joe can't do this.” 

Pricing critics, such as Patients for Affordable Drugs founder David Mitchell, say much more is needed. While the program will help some of the 3 million Medicare beneficiaries who use insulin, it leaves many other patients "with no relief," Mitchell said via Twitter.

For his part, PhRMA CEO Stephen Ubl said in a statement that the model "has the potential to meaningfully improve affordability and predictability for patients who rely on insulin, but it must be a shared responsibility between health plans and biopharmaceutical companies."

RELATED: Who's toughest on drug prices? Watch Trump and his 2020 challengers wrestle for the title 

While the measure will provide cost relief for many Americans, it isn’t as ambitious as the administration’s prior drug pricing goals such as eliminating rebates or allowing states to import cheap medications.  

For one reason or another, many of the administration’s initiatives on pricing have either stalled or been abandoned. The administration sought to force drug prices into TV ads, but a court blocked the measure. Officials also took on drug rebates, but they ditched that plan that after a Congressional Budget Office review. Still, heightened attention to drug costs has caused price growth to slow or turn negative in recent years. 

In 2018, prescription drug prices fell by 1%, the Associated Press reported. It was the first time in 45 years prices had dropped nationwide over a year's time. Price growth was lower than usual through the first seven months of 2019, as well. 

RELATED: Sorry, pharma: White House pulls industry's favored rebate proposal 

Meanwhile, even as the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated attention worldwide, Trump recently told senators he still wants Congressional action on pricing this year, Sen. Chuck Grassley said in an interview with Iowa’s KSCJ. Grassley's bipartisan effort calls for limiting price hikes in Medicare to the rate of inflation and implementing an out-of-pocket cap for patients.

Amid the pandemic, Trump’s tone on drug companies has shifted significantly as well. While he said they were “getting away with murder” before taking office, he invited Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks and other execs to Tuesday’s event, and he's regularly touted the progress the industry is making in its COVID-19 research. 

Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi are all participating in the insulin savings program, according to officials, and 88 health plans have signed on.

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