Despite Trump's 'inaction,' lawmakers push ahead with Medicare negotiation plan

Four lawmakers introduced a familiar proposal in Congress on Wednesday: Medicare drug pricing negotiations.

Even though drug pricing talk in Washington, D.C., has quieted somewhat, a group of lawmakers continue to beat the drum for reform. At a Wednesday press conference, the legislators introduced a familiar idea they say has broad backing, but passing it in this Congress may not be easy. 

Reps. Elijah Cummings, Lloyd Doggett and Peter Welch, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the Medicare Drug Price Negotiation Act of 2017 on Wednesday, pushing an idea that they say has support from more than 90% of Americans and that President Donald Trump himself has said he favors.

According to the lawmakers, the bill would direct the HHS secretary to "negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs under Medicare Part D." It's been proposed plenty of times before, but has never gained much momentum in Congress. Reps. Cummings and Welch, for their part, met with the president back in March to talk up their idea. 

They said Trump was receptive to the idea at the time and that the president even called Rep. Cummings to follow up afterward. 

But since then, according to the lawmakers, Trump has been silent on the issue. They've reached out twice to the president in writing only to receive no response. On Wednesday, they sent a third letter (PDF) about the proposal. 

"While your silence and inaction have left us no choice but to move forward without you, we remain eager to work together should you change your mind," the lawmakers wrote. 

As a candidate for president last year, Donald Trump crossed party lines to endorse the Medicare price negotiation idea. As president-elect in January, he blasted pharma's lobbying power in Washington and said drug companies are "getting away with murder." 

But instead of taking action on pricing, critics have said the Trump Administration has failed to take on pharma's influence. Most recently, the administration was said to consider former Eli Lilly executive Alex Azar as a HHS secretary replacement for Tom Price. 

Medicaid and the Department of Veterans Affairs already negotiate drug prices, according to the lawmakers, allowing those agencies to pay far lower prices for brand-name meds than Medicare. Medicare's average brand-name drug prices are 73% higher than Medicaid and 80% higher than the VA, according to their Wednesday release. Similar pricing for Medicare could lead to $15.2 billion to $16 billion in annual savings for the U.S. government, according to one estimate.

Reacting to the proposal, a PhRMA spokesperson said the bill "undermines the competitive structure of Medicare Part D and replaces it with government imposed price controls."

"It could jeopardize access to critical medicines for seniors and people living with disabilities, ultimately reducing choice and restricting coverage," she wrote in an email. The drug industry trade group argues that Medicare purchasers already negotiate rebates and discounts from pharma companies, resulting in an average 35.3% discount from list prices, according to one report.

RELATED: California governor, rebuffing pharma pleas, signs breakthrough drug pricing bill

Medicare price negotiation is one idea among many that's been under consideration over the last several years as drug costs have sparked an industrywide firestorm. But so far, it's been mostly talk in Congress and no ideas have gained steam. As Congress hasn't been able to move forward on the issue, many states have taken pricing into their own hands. Maryland, Nevada and now California have passed their own measures that seek to lower prices or increase transparency in different ways.