Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) blasted the idea of using arbitration to lower Medicare’s prescription drug prices as “sort of a sellout to Big Pharma,” challenging congressional progressives to vote down any deal with President Donald Trump that includes arbitration.
“To use arbitration to deal with drug pricing seems like a loser from the start. It’s sort of a sellout to Big Pharma,” Ellison told HuffPost. “Democratic leadership should know that, if they don’t actually know that.”
Ellison, who was a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus until 2017, called on the current CPC heads, Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), to block any drug price deal with arbitration in it.
“The progressive caucus should not take any crap from leadership here,” he said. “The progressive caucus is saving Democratic leadership from themselves.”
Wendell Primus, a top adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), is in talks with the White House to draft a bill that Trump would be willing to sign aimed at lowering drug prices.
Primus is reportedly pursuing legislation that would allow Medicare and drug makers to enter into arbitration, in which a third-party intermediary could adopt one of the parties’ proposed prices or come up with a price on their own.
Consumer groups and progressive lawmakers have publicly criticized the prospect of such a deal, arguing instead for legislation that empowers the federal government to threaten companies’ drug patents if they do not provide lower prices.
These critics fear that Primus’ plan would only apply to a limited set of drugs and not even be binding for participating companies. But they also maintain that the arbitration process inherently privileges pharmaceutical companies by depriving the federal government of crucial leverage in negotiations.
Ellison, who has used his perch as Minnesota’s top law enforcement official to take on drug-makers, focused on the latter point.
“Arbitration is notoriously bad for people who are on the other side of the table from a larger, greater entity,” he said. “All it does is advantage the party with the superior bargaining position.”
The progressive caucus should not take any crap from leadership here. The progressive caucus is saving Democratic leadership from themselves.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison
Ellison noted that corporations have, in recent years, expanded the use of arbitration as a negotiating tool, favoring it over direct confrontation with workers, consumers or investors. These mega-companies and their expensive legal teams have found that they have better odds of winning disputes when they don’t have to enter a courtroom or go toe-to-toe with government regulators.
In his home state of Minnesota, Ellison is promoting a bill that would grant him veto power over sudden drug price hikes.
At the federal level, Ellison believes that a bill introduced by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee’s health panel, is a much better way to lower Medicare drug prices.
Doggett’s bill, which has 122 co-sponsors, would empower the Department of Health and Human Services to nullify the pharmaceutical patents of companies that don’t agree to adequately lower the price of a drug in the course of negotiations.
Asked whether a compromise might be the only way to pass drug price legislation this Congress, Ellison questioned whether such a deal would provide meaningful relief to consumers. He also noted it could force Democrats to share political ownership of an ineffective policy.
“What will happen is we’ve bought it,” Ellison predicted. “We’re as responsible as [Trump], and when people see their lives get worse, or not better, what we will have done is created confusion.”
“We want people to believe that Democrats have answers for them and will make their lives better,” he added. “You vote for Democrats, you will be able to afford your medicine. If that’s not true, they lose faith in all of us.”
Jayapal and Pocan are due to speak about drug pricing with Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the influential Energy and Commerce Committee, on Tuesday.
The co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus declined to comment for this story.
In the meantime, Ellison said he has faith in Jayapal and Pocan to hold the line against a bad bill.
“They’re committed to meaningful reform. They may be the American public’s only hope,” he said.