Trump peeved by stalled drug-price cuts

President Trump is campaigning for re-election in 2020 by saying he has made great progress in reducing drug prices.

But the issue has been a source of frustration for him recently, according to people familiar with the matter, as polling shows a majority of Americans disapprove of his handling of the issue and Democratic challengers for the White House focus on how his initiatives have stalled.

Key parts of the president’s plan to combat prescription costs have been blocked by courts, dropped by the administration or delayed. Meanwhile, drug companies this year have raised prices for hundreds of medications.

Fifty-four percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the costs of prescription drugs, according to a January poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation.


The lack of a major success is needling Trump, who has become frustrated without a signature accomplishment on drug pricing, according to people familiar with the matter. He has taken to task Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive tasked with driving down drug prices, one of these people said.

Democratic rivals vying for their party’s nomination have also targeted Trump on the issue. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently ran an ad saying “Trump did nothing” on prescription costs. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, at a rally this month in Denver, said beating Trump would amount to taking on the pharmaceutical industry, suggesting the president hadn’t done so. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has repeatedly said Trump broke his promise to bring down drug prices.

Trump has publicly characterized his work on lowering drug costs as an achievement while blaming Democrats for blocking more progress. In his State of the Union speech this month, he said that the cost of prescription drugs went down.

Ann Lovell, right, sits with her box of prescriptions after returning to Salt Lake City International Airport in January from a visit to Tijuana, Mexico, to buy arthritis medication. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

“Because of President Trump’s leadership, last year drug prices fell for the first time in almost 50 years, and he will continue to consider any and all tools to ensure that the decline continues,” said deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere.

Health analysts have questioned the assertion. Deciphering price trends in drugs is difficult because many of the measurements are imperfect or incomplete.


More than 60 drugmakers raised prices in the U.S. at the start of 2020, but the acceleration in prices had slowed year-to-year, according to an analysis from Rx Savings Solutions, which sells software to help employers and health plans choose the least-expensive medicines.

Consumer prices for prescription drugs rose 3 percent from December 2018 to December 2019, according to the Labor Department.

Some health analysts say Trump, who has built much of his health-policy platform on reducing drug prices, could feel pressure to release bolder drug-pricing regulations before the election.

“His campaign is going to be focused on health care,” said Robert Blendon, a health policy professor at Harvard University. “The economy, for the average person, is getting better except for these pocketbook health-care issues. They’re going to hold him responsible.”

Some voters, such as Jacqueline Means, 73 years old, said they still don’t know if Democratic presidential candidates or Trump offer the best approach to tackle drug costs. Ms. Means’s partner, Ed, got a bone-marrow transplant to treat his leukemia. The cost of one of his drugs was $89,000 for the month.

“The drug companies are way out of whack,” said Ms. Means, of Portland, Ore.


The president sounded optimistic when he unveiled his plan to curb prescription prices in May 2018 in the White House Rose Garden. Standing behind a blue banner that read ‘Lower Drug Prices for Americans,” Trump said his blueprint would mean “much lower prices at the pharmacy counter.”

One element of the plan called for drugmakers to put list prices in television ads. That requirement was blocked in July by a federal court, however, after Amgen Inc., Merck & Co., Eli Lilly & Co. sued.

Another part of the plan aimed to end drug rebates to middlemen in Medicare. The administration dropped that idea in July because it would cost about $200 billion over a decade.

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And the plan’s aim to tie some drug prices to the lower costs in other countries has stalled since it was formally proposed in October 2018. White House health officials have sparred over the policy, according to the people familiar with the matter.

Now, White House health advisers are working with congressional lawmakers to support a bill to bring down prices. Mr. Trump, who is eager for a win on drug pricing, is accusing Democrats of blocking the measure to score political points.

“We’re also ready to lower drug prices very substantially,” Trump told governors in a Feb. 10 White House session. “But to get them really down, we have to do exactly what we’re doing. We need the votes of the Democrats, and they just didn’t have time to do anything.”


House Democrats in December passed legislation that would let Medicare negotiate the price for some costly drugs. Republicans remain opposed. Trump has called for bipartisan legislation, and the White House has laid out what it would like in a bill.

The Trump administration has had some successes, including a faster-paced approval of new generic drugs that can drive down prices. Trump also signed legislation in 2018 that empowers pharmacists and insurers to inform consumers they could pay less out of pocket for certain drugs.

The administration has also supported states that want to re-import lower-priced drugs from Canada, even though Canadian officials have balked at the idea over concerns it could undermine their drug supply.

But many voters remain frustrated.

“Whatever they’re doing, they’re just talking,” said Ruth Rinehart, 69, of Tampa, Fla., who has turned to getting drugs in Canada because of their cost in the U.S. “I want somebody to do something.”