House Drug Price Hearings Push Action on Surprise Medical Bills to Backburner

September 27, 2019

The House Energy and Commerce and Education and Labor Committees both held hearings on legislation to reduce drug prices, including a bill by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (H.R. 3), with the intention of marking up legislation when the House returns from recess in October.

The Energy and Commerce hearing revealed it will be difficult to move a bipartisan bill through the House with both parties lobbing attacks at each other and complaining about the process.  The House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions hearing was much less acrimonious, but witnesses and questioning made clear the two parties remain far apart on how to resolve the issue.

The Senate Finance Committee also released its bipartisan drug pricing bill with Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) noting “it would be nice if it could be this year, but there’s next year too.”  Sen. Grassley has been talking with House Democrats about their bills to see where differences lie and what may be able to be worked out, but he still must get his caucus to agree to the bill his committee passed.

Employers may be reaching a breaking point:  According to PwC's Health Research Institute, prices, not utilization, continue to fuel health care spending, with retail drug spending under private health plans projected to accelerate as the impact of generics plateaus, and costly new therapies enter the market.

Meanwhile, action on surprise medical bills has slowed as members of the House Labor and Education Committee have not reached agreement on how to proceed and the Congressional Budget Office reportedly projected federal legislation that would include an arbitration process that would substantially increase the deficit.  The House Ways and Means Committee is also working on its own legislation but has not yet released anything.

Looking ahead:  If the House is to pass H.R. 3 this year, it may have to do so with a largely partisan vote, which will put it on a collision course with the bipartisan Senate Finance Committee bill.  However, it remains unclear whether the full Senate can even pass its bill despite broad public support to address the affordability of prescription drugs.