With Manchin's backing, Senate Dems unveil plan to let Medicare negotiate drug prices
Senator Joe Manchin speaking during an event in 2017. (Third Way Think Tank)

Senate Democrats, including serial obstructionist Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have reportedly reached a deal on a plan that would allow Medicare to negotiate the prices of a small subset of prescription drugs directly with pharmaceutical companies, a change that is massively popular with voters across party lines.

"Already this year, drug corporations have raised the price of over 800 prescription medicines by more than 5%."

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) submitted 190 pages of legislative text to the chamber's parliamentarian, an unelected official tasked with opining on whether bill provisions comply with the arcane rules of budget reconciliation—the process Democrats are using to evade GOP opposition and the 60-vote filibuster rule.

The new text largely resembles the drug pricing plan that the House of Representatives passed in November as part of the broader Build Back Better package, which Manchin tanked just a month later.

Over the past several weeks, Schumer and Manchin have been engaged in talks to revive certain elements of the package, a centerpiece of President Joe Biden's domestic agenda. Any new bill, which would include the prescription drug proposal, is expected to be far smaller than the $1.75 trillion package that House Democrats approved last year.

In its current form, Senate Democrats' drug pricing plan would cap Medicare recipients' out-of-pocket prescription medicine costs at $2,000 a year, penalize drug companies that raise prices at a faster rate than inflation, and allow Medicare to "negotiate and, if applicable, renegotiate maximum fair prices" for a limited number of costly drugs beginning in 2023.

The pharmaceutical industry, whose Capitol Hill lobbyists outnumber members of Congress, has aggressively fought such changes as it continues to push up prices for lifesaving medicines. A study published last month in the medical journal JAMA estimated that nearly half of all new brand-name prescription medicines launched in the U.S. in 2020 and 2021 came with an original annual price tag of $150,000 or more.

In late May, Manchin tweeted that he supports "allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices," prompting Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to respond:

Following reports last week that Senate Democrats had reached a tentative deal on a proposal to rein in prescription drug prices—which are significantly higher in the U.S. than in other wealthy countries—Margarida Jorge of Lower Drug Prices Now said in a statement that "this is a once-in-a-generation chance for Democrats to finally deliver on their promises to lower drug prices."

"At a time when the price of everything is going up, this bill, if enacted, would finally rein in Big Pharma's price gouging and make medicines more affordable for millions of Americans," said Jorge. "Already this year, drug corporations have raised the price of over 800 prescription medicines by more than 5%. And more increases are expected. Under our current broken system, Americans pay more than twice as much for the same drugs as people in most other countries."

"This compromise will lower prices, cut costs, and stop the drug corporations from raising their prices faster than the rate of inflation," Jorge added. "We applaud Senate Democrats for advancing this vital piece of legislation one more step and encourage them to get it over the finish line without delay. The American people can not afford to wait any longer for affordable medicines to take care of themselves and their families."