Ernst Backs Grassley’s Drug Bill After Months Of Indecision

Photo by Julie Fleming

By Elizabeth Meyer

February 19, 2020

As part of her effort to win reelection in November, Sen. Joni Ernst tells Iowans about how Congress is working to lower the cost of prescription drugs, an issue voters often bring up at town hall meetings and on the campaign trail.

But an article published Tuesday morning by The Washington Post featured Ernst speaking out against Sen. Chuck Grassley’s prescription drug legislation because the “price caps” are “an issue that we’re concerned about.”

” … but if we consider a path forward I really really want to be part of that discussion,” Ernst went on to say.

The Washington Post article quoting Ernst and questioning whether the bill would get a Senate vote published at 7:19 a.m. About three hours later, Ernst’s team put out a press release stating her support for Grassley’s bill and Sen. Mike Crapo’s legislation, the Lower Costs More Cures Act.

“While I don’t believe this proposal is perfect, it’s a great place to start,” Ernst said in a press release. “And that’s why I’m glad to support Sen. Grassley in this effort and look forward to continuing to work alongside him and our colleagues — both Democrats and Republicans — on advancing solutions through Congress and to the president’s desk.”

In a statement, Grassley called Ernst’s endorsement “critical in turning this legislation into law.”

One of the central tenants of Grassley’s Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act limits the ability of Medicare’s prescription drug benefit program to increase prices beyond the rate of inflation. If drug companies increase prices at a pace greater than the inflation rate, they would face a penalty. The bill also caps seniors’ annual out-of-pocket drug costs at $3,100.

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In July, the legislation passed Grassley’s Senate Finance Committee with support from every Democrat, including the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. Nine Republicans voted against the bill, with some accusing the price cap provisions of being a form of “price controls,” a cost reduction tactic they view as anti-free market and potentially costly in the future.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is noncommittal on whether he will bring the Grassley-Wyden bill to the floor.

“Everybody agrees that prescription drug prices are too high,” McConnell said, according to The Washington Post. “The dilemma is how do you get there and we have divisions in the Republican Party on that, and with he Democrats on that. Whether we can pull together and get a solution, I’m not prepared to predict today.”

Like the Grassley-Wyden bill, Sen. Crapo’s legislation proposes a $3,100 out-of-pocket cap on seniors’ annual prescription drug costs. Unlike Grassley’s bill, it does not directly limit Medicare’s ability to hike drug prices beyond the rate of inflation.

During the July Finance Committee meeting on Grassley’s bill, Crapo said the “inflation penalty in [Medicare] Part D is one that I have strong concerns about.

“Not only is this a problem in terms of the impact on the market-based foundation of Part D,” the Idaho senator said, “but in my opinion, it’s going to result in higher prices for future drugs and cost-shifting to patients that’s going to be harmful to them.”

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In December, Democrats passed the Lower Drug Costs Now Act through the House of Representatives with support from only two Republicans.

A key component of H.R. 3 is the ability of Medicare to negotiate drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies, a tactic Republicans largely reject. It also implements a $2,000 out-of-pocket cap for seniors, compared to the $3,100 price cap in Republicans’ legislation.

Iowa Democrats were quick to call out Ernst on Tuesday for her inconsistency on the issue.

“Senator Ernst’s eleventh hour flip-flop to pretend she’s fighting to lower health care and prescription drug costs is an act of political desperation to salvage her career in Washington,” said Jeremy Busch, an Iowa Democratic Party spokesman, in a press release. “Ernst has spent half a decade siding with Big Pharma over Iowans: blocking reforms to lower prescription drug costs and voting for massive tax giveaways to protect their profits, while raising $120,000 in campaign cash from them.”

Theresa Greenfield, a Democrat running to unseat Ernst, also weighed in. “Senator Ernst promised to be different, but she’s exactly like every other Washington politician who refuses to stand up to her Big Pharma campaign donors at the expense of working families,” she said.


In the fourth and final fundraising quarter of 2019, Ernst received $40,000 from pharmaceutical executives and PACs tied to drug companies, including $5,000 from Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of Merck; $2,000 from Pfizer; and $5,000 from Celgene.

Over the summer, Kaiser Health News showed how drug companies targeted “vulnerable” Republican senators with nearly $845,000 in the first six months of 2019, including Ernst, who received a “huge bump” of about $35,500 in Q1. Prior to 2019, Ernst had received about $15,000 from pharmaceutical PACs during her first term.

The Washington Post’s article Tuesday noted the influence drug companies can have on Republican politicians, reporting the pharmaceutical lobby “has spent millions lobbying against the [Grassley-Wyden] bill.



By Elizabeth Meyer
Posted 2/19/20



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