Cap on Drug Price Hikes for Privately Insured Sparks Battle

(AP) -
Pharmaceuticals are seen in North Andover, Mass.  (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

Workers and families with private health insurance would reap savings on prescription drugs from a little-noticed provision in President Joe Biden’s sweeping social agenda bill. It’s meant to break the cycle of annual price increases for widely used medicines.

That provision would require drug companies to pay rebates to Medicare if they increase prices above the rate of inflation. Drugs sold to private plans would count in calculating the penalty, like a tax on price increases. The issue is dividing business groups in a fierce lobbying battle.

Corporate groups focused on affordable employee benefits want to keep the language as is so it would provide price-increase protection for companies and their workers and not just Medicare enrollees. Other groups such as the influential U.S. Chamber of Commerce are backing the pharmaceutical industry’s drive to block restraints on pricing, including inflation caps, saying they would stifle innovation.

House Democrats passed the roughly $2 trillion social agenda legislation on Friday and sent it to the Senate. The bill resets national priorities on issues from climate to family life and faces more scrutiny in that evenly divided chamber. Prescription drugs are but one component, and most of the attention has focused on Medicare provisions to slash out-of-pocket costs for seniors and allow the program to negotiate prices for a limited number of medicines.

But the inflation caps would have far-reaching impact for as many as 180 million Americans with private insurance.

“A lot of people don’t realize that the bill applies to, and will help, privately insured people,” said Shawn Gremminger, health policy director at the Purchaser Business Group on Health. “But that isn’t a sure thing. As currently structured, that would be the case. But we have been worried and continue to be worried that will change.” His coalition represents nearly 40 large employers that cover more than 15 million workers, retirees and their families.

Inflation caps would be a “game changer,” said James Gelfand, a vice president of ERIC, a group that represents major national companies as providers of employee benefits.

Earlier legislation would have based the “inflation rebates” on sales to Medicare plans, but the House-passed bill broadens the formula to include private plans.

“If they raise prices in private markets faster than the economy grows, they will be required to pay that money back to the government,” Gelfand said. The goal is to deter drug companies from extravagant price increases.

Annual price increases for established prescription drugs usually outpace inflation, although there have been periods of moderation in recent years.

Gremminger said his group estimates that the privately insured market could save $250 billion over 10 years under the inflation caps currently in the bill. Without them, Gelfand estimates that employers could face an additional 3.7% annual increase in health-care costs over the usual medical inflation because drug companies could in effect raise prices on privately insured patients to make up for rebates paid on behalf of Medicare enrollees.

“It’s true that not all the business groups are in the same place,” Gelfand said of divisions in the business community. “If you look at groups on either side of the issue, there are groups that protect the business interests of pharma, and then there’s everybody else.”

The main drug industry lobbying group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, says inflation rebates would undermine innovation that continues after medicines are approved.

The generic drug industry wants their products exempted. Dan Leonard, president of the generic lobbying group Association for Accessible Medicines, said he fears his members will be penalized for price increases that amount to pennies on the dollar.

In the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has taken a lead role on prescription drugs, supports keeping the inflation caps for privately insured people.