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Democrats shift focus to lowering insulin costs

Democrats in Congress have shifted their attention to lowering the cost of insulin, a narrow drug pricing reform policy goal after their agenda stalled earlier this year with the failure of the Build Back Better plan.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said earlier this week that he would work to advance cost-cutting measures this spring, which would provide the party a much-needed win ahead of the November midterm elections.

“The current cost of this life-saving drug runs from $300-$600 per prescription; it is not just ridiculous it’s dangerous. Millions of Americans and too many Capital Region residents stand with me on this push to cap the cost of insulin at $35 so we can stop rationing this drug, and finally make insulin more affordable and accessible for all Americans,” Schumer said.


The bill’s language is still being hammered out, but it will combine two separate pieces of legislation that target insulin costs. The first is a bill from Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat, who faces a tough reelection bid this fall. It would cap the out-of-pocket cost of insulin at $35 per month for consumers, though it would not lower the overall price of insulin.

“If you can’t afford your insulin, then your health care isn’t affordable. Making this life-saving drug affordable isn’t an ideological issue, it’s a practical one — one that has garnered bipartisan support in blue and red states, and on both sides of the aisle here in Washington — so I’m hopeful we can find a bipartisan path forward,” Warnock said last week.

The other bill, meanwhile, was authored by Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins and New Hampshire Democrat Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. Their bill, first introduced in 2019, would eliminate the rebates drugmakers give pharmacy middlemen if the pharmaceutical company agreed to lower the price of the products to 2006 levels. Pharmacy benefit managers, who manage prescription drug benefits on behalf of health insurers and other payers, have increased rebates as a fixed percentage of insulin list prices, driving up the cost of the products for consumers.

“Negotiations are ongoing, but there is a bipartisan determination to present policy proposals that both cap out-of-pocket costs and address soaring insulin prices that for too long have forced some Americans to ration their supplies. That’s unacceptable, and it’s time we put an end to it," Sens. Collins and Shaheen said in a joint statement to the Washington Examiner.

What progress the Democrats had made in progressing their drug pricing reform agenda, which included a measure to allow limited government negotiation of certain drugs in parts B and D of the government healthcare plan Medicare, was stymied by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The prognosis was worsened with the demise of President Joe Biden’s trademark Build Back Better Act last December.

The midterm elections are looming, and a broader raft of reforms have not come to fruition despite a renewed push earlier this month from Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, for legislation that gives Medicare price negotiating power with drug companies. But the proposal is deeply unpopular with Republicans and the pharmaceutical industry, who say implementing such a plan would stifle innovation of future cures and treatments.


The Democrats’ embattled H.R. 3, or the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act, has also stalled more than once due to its controversial drug pricing negotiation provision. It was first introduced in 2019 and again in 2021. It passed out of the lower chamber in 2019 when Democrats held a greater majority. They approved it almost entirely along party lines, but the Senate didn’t take it up. The legislation was obstructed again last September, when three Democrats joined their GOP counterparts to decisively shoot it down in an Energy and Commerce Committee vote.