Burlington County Times

Kim: The Fight To Lower Prescription Drug Prices Continues

For Kim and other Democrats, the bill represents what they believe is the best and most achievable path to address an issue critical to millions of Americans. It also gives the incumbent and other so-called vulnerable Democrats a major issue to talk about during their re-election battles next year.

Burlington County Times — December 16, 2019

By David Levinsky

EVESHAM — As the final seconds ticked off of the U.S. House of Representatives' Thursday afternoon vote on legislation numbered H.R. 3, Rep. Andy Kim decided to flout the chamber's long-standing rule against photography on the House floor and sneak a quick one with a display of the final count.

The freshman Democrat wanted his own record of what he considered a landmark occasion.

"We're not supposed to take photos on the House floor, but I took one — a selfie — of the final vote count because it was a really meaningful step," Kim said Sunday about the legislation, which aims to bring down the cost of prescription drugs by allowing Medicare to negotiate prices.

For Kim and other Democrats, the bill represents what they believe is the best and most achievable path to address an issue critical to millions of Americans. It also gives the incumbent and other so-called vulnerable Democrats a major issue to talk about during their re-election battles next year.

But while Republicans have already declared the measure "dead on arrival" in the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate, Kim insists the legislation isn't just about sending a message to voters and that he's not giving up on getting the measure passed and signed into law next year.

"It was a real slog getting it to this point but I still hold a lot of hope that this isn't the end of this particular battle here," the congressman said Sunday during a roundtable meeting in Evesham with advocates and residents that doubled both as a celebration of the House's vote and call for action for a tough fight in the Senate.

All 11 New Jersey Democrats voted in favor of the bill during Thursday's 230-192 vote. Rep. Chris Smith, R-4 of Robbinsville, was the lone "no" vote among the state's delegation.

Among the roundtable participants were Evelyn Liebman, AARP's New Jersey director of advocacy; Maura Collinsgru, New Jersey Citizen Action's health care program director, Dorothy Cebula, a counselor with the State Health Insurance Assistance Program and Burlington County residents LeNor LeDoux, Kathleen West, and West's two children Alexandria and Richard, who both take insulin for Type 1 diabetes.

West said the insulin runs between $300 and $400 a vial. And while she feels fortunate that her insurance covers most of the expense, she worries about what will happen when both kids turn 26 and must obtain their own coverage.

"Insulin can cost thousands of dollars a month," West said. "If you don't have it, you die. There's no way to avoid it."

LeDoux, of Burlington City, told Kim she went into bankruptcy due to the costs of prescription drugs and other health care expenses for her late mother.

"This is the United States; you shouldn't have to lose your house, you shouldn't have to go without heat and electricity, you shouldn't have to stop paying your bills or cut back on your foods," she said. "There's no reason we should have to subsidize the rest of the world's pharmaceutical costs and that's what we're doing."

The House bill, named the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act after the late Democratic congressman, would require the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate Medicare prices for many of the most expensive drugs — including insulin — using lower prices paid in six other developed countries as a reference point.

Early projections are the change could lower the prices between 40% to 55% and the bill would also allow private insurance plans to adopt Medicare's price.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget office has estimated the change would save Medicare $500 billion over 10 years. The bill calls for those savings to be reinvested into expanded Medicare coverage for dental, hearing and vision and by raising income limits to make it easier for more seniors to qualify for subsidies for Medicare premiums, copayments, deductibles and other health care expenses.

The expanded subsidies provision was incorporated from a bill Kim helped author.

Collinsgru described the legislation a "game changer" in health care policy and debate.

"This finally moves the needle to put patients above profits. This is a marker that changes the conversation and it gets to the root problem that (health care) costs too much," she said.

While advocates cite polls showing strong public support for permitting Medicare to negotiate drug prices, the pharmaceutical industry has come out strongly against the legislation, arguing that it amounts to government-imposed price control and that it would stifle innovation.

Kim has become one of the chief targets of industry advertising both because New Jersey is home to many pharmaceutical companies and because his district is considered among the most competitive in the nation.

But the lawmaker said he is undeterred by the attacks. While he said he has deep respect for medical research, noting that his mother was a nurse and his father was deeply into research for a cure to Alzheimer's disease, he also argued that it was a "false choice" between innovation and fair pricing.

"It's not a zero sum game," he said, noting that a significant amount of medical research is funded with taxpayer dollars through the National Institutes of Health.

Kim also cautioned against describing pharmaceutical companies as "bloodsuckers" and said representatives of the industry have conceded that some changes are needed at the same time they've resisted allowing price negotiations.

"It doesn't have to be 'us vs. them'," he said. "There's a way we can have innovation and fairness."

He also suggested that some tough choices would likely need to be made by Democrats in order to find a compromise palatable to some Republicans in the Senate, where a rival bill has been put forward that seeks to cap seniors' out-of-pocket costs but without allowing price negotiations.

As is often the case, President Donald Trump is a major wildcard in the debate. He spoke in favor of allowing the government to negotiate down drug prices during his presidential campaign but his administration has threatened to veto H.R. 3, saying it would impose "price controls."

Liebman and others at the meeting said Americans should demand action.

"There's no reason Americans should have the highest drug costs in the world," she said. "In New Jersey, we know 24% of people report they've stopped taking medications themselves because of high drug costs."

Kim agreed, saying a groundswell of public pressure may be required to move the Senate to act.

"We know we're in a time of divided government but if ever there was an issue we can all agree upon it's lowering the costs of prescription drugs," he said. "President Trump has talked about allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices before, so lets do it. Let's just get it across the finish line, show the American people we know how to govern and can get things that will have an immediate impact on their lives."

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