Congressional hearings often serve as elaborate theatrical productions. Members ask pre-written questions, receive formulaic answers, and in many cases use witnesses as props to engage in rhetorical grandstanding. The grandstanding element was on full display Tuesday during the confirmation hearing for Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services Secretary-designee. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) wanted to beat up on “evil” drug companies, and she wasn’t going to let facts get in her way.
McCaskill spent two minutes attacking pharmaceutical advertisements, including a reference to “the one for erectile dysfunction where they have them in two bathtubs,” before she tackled the issue of Medicare “negotiating” prices with drug companies. At this point she demonstrated ignorance on several issues.
First, she confused the difference between list prices, or the prices that pharmaceutical companies post publicly, and net prices, which are the net price for payors, based on negotiations with pharmaceutical benefit managers (PBMs). Azar admitted that drug companies have no economic incentive to lower list prices, but that negotiations with PBMs do put downward pressure on the net prices. One can question whether PBMs pass on their savings from negotiating rebates — some have done just that — but their negotiating power does keep net prices in check.
Second, McCaskill failed to grasp that Medicare drug plans already negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, and that the discounts they obtain have helped keep overall premiums for the prescription drug Part D plan low. It may sound radical to McCaskill, who has spent practically her entire adult life working in government, but the private sector can negotiate just like the government, and probably do so more effectively than a government entity.
Third, McCaskill refused to believe that getting the government involved in “negotiating” drug prices would not save money. When Azar explained that removing a provision prohibiting federal bureaucrats from “negotiating” prices wouldn’t save money, McCaskill called his explanation “just crazy” and “nuts.”
It isn’t nuts, it’s economics. Even though McCaskill tried to lecture Azar on economics and markets at the beginning of her questioning, her queries themselves showed very little understanding of either concept. In a negotiation, the ability to drive a hard bargain ultimately derives from the ability to seek out other options. If Medicare must cover all or most prescription drugs, such that it can’t walk away from the proverbial bargaining table, it will by definition be limited in its ability to put downward pressure on prices.
But don’t take my word for it. As Azar pointed out to McCaskill, none other than Peter Orszag, who directed the Office of Management and Budget (OBO) under President Obama — said as much in an April 2007 Congressional Budget Office letter:
By itself, giving the Secretary broad authority to negotiate drug prices would not provide the leverage necessary to generate lower prices than those obtained by PDPs and thus would have a negligible effect on Medicare drug spending. Negotiation is likely to be effective only if it is accompanied by some source of pressure on drug manufacturers to secure price concessions. The authority to establish a formulary, set prices administratively, or take other regulatory actions against firms failing to offer price reductions could give the Secretary the ability to obtain significant discounts in negotiations with drug manufacturers.
Only the ability to limit access to drugs by setting a formulary or imposing administrative prices, i.e. “negotiating” by dictating prices to drug companies, would have any meaningful impact on pricing levels. But this truth proved inconvenient to McCaskill, who admitted she “refuse[d] to acknowledge it.”
Instead, McCaskill continued haranguing him about the evils of drug companies. She pointed out that one congressman who helped negotiate the prescription drug benefit, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA), “went to run PhRMA after he finished getting it through.”
Indeed he did. And as the head of PhRMA, he bragged about the “rock-solid deal” he cut with the Obama administration to help his industry. Big Pharma’s “deal” as part of Obamacare encouraged seniors to purchase costlier brand-name drugs instead of cheaper generics, which the CBO concluded would raise Part D premiums by nearly 10 percent. And who voted for that “rock-solid deal?” None other than Claire McCaskill.
As the saying goes: If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. But if you don’t, pound the table.
The facts indicate that McCaskill voted for a “rock-solid deal” with Big Pharma that raised premiums on millions of seniors, which actually makes her part of the problem, not part of the solution. Of course, that also makes her willingness to grandstand at Tuesday’s hearing, and her unwillingness to face facts she now finds politically inconvenient, less “crazy” than it first seemed.