After Record Fundraising Haul From Big Pharma, McConnell Vows to Block Drug Pricing Bill

The bill is backed by both Trump and Pelosi, so McConnell is standing in the way of a major bipartisan breakthrough that could lower drug prices for millions of Americans.

After Record Fundraising Haul From Big Pharma, McConnell Vows to Block Drug Pricing Bill
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks to the media after attending the Republican weekly policy luncheon on Capitol Hill, September 17, 2019 in Washington, DC.

On Sept. 20, President Donald Trump made a rare display of bipartisanship, tweeting in support of a bill from Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) that would require Medicare to begin negotiating the prices of some drugs.

“It’s great to see Speaker Pelosi’s bill today,” Trump tweeted. “Let’s get it done in a bipartisan way!”

But for the bill to pass through Congress and reach Trump’s desk, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has to buy in, too. McConnell said on Sept. 19 that he plans to block the bill from receiving a vote in the Senate, essentially spelling its doom. 

“Socialist price controls will do a lot of left-wing damage to the health care system. And of course we’re not going to be calling up a bill like that,” McConnell told Politico.

The bill, called the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, would require the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to negotiate prices on insulin products and a minimum of 25 of the most expensive drugs that do not have generic competition. It would also penalize companies that increase the cost of drugs faster than the rate of inflation and set an annual out-of-pocket maximum of $2,000 for Medicare Part D beneficiaries. The bill, which passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday, would save CMS $345 billion by 2029, according to the Congressional Budget Office. 

McConnell’s opposition to the bill comes after he had an exceptional quarter of fundraising from executives and PACs of pharmaceutical companies that could be forced to reduce the prices of their drugs under Medicare if Pelosi’s bill becomes law. From July 1 to Sept. 30, McConnell’s joint fundraising committee and campaign committee raised $195,300 from executives and PACs of pharmaceutical companies, according to third-quarter Federal Election Commission filings reviewed by Sludge. 

The CEOs of Abbvie, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, Pfizer, Roche Pharmaceuticals, and Sanofi each contributed $15,600 to McConnell’s joint fundraising committee in the third quarter. Novo Nordisk Executive Vice President Doug Langa chipped in $10,000, Amgen CEO Robert Bradway gave $7,500, and Celgene CEO Mark Alles contributed $5,000.

McConnell’s Senate committee received contributions from several pharmaceutical industry PACs during the quarter, including those affiliated with Allergan ($7,500), Sunovion ($5,000), Celgene ($2,500), and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization ($1,000).

“Big Pharma has outsize influence in D.C., and as a direct result of the rigged drug pricing system manufactured by this influence, patients across America are rationing medication, going without food, going bankrupt and dying because they can’t afford prescription drugs,” Juliana Keeping, communications director at Patients for Affordable Drugs, told Sludge. “That’s why we’re urging lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to pass reforms with the sense of urgency patients deserve.”

Several of the contributions greatly exceed the per-election, per-individual maximum allowed contribution of $2,800 to campaign committees, but they are legal because they were given to McConnell for Majority Leader, a joint fundraising committee that is affiliated with⁠—and transfers money to⁠—McConnell’s Senate campaign committee and leadership PAC, as well as the Republican Party of Kentucky, allowing donors to give the combined maximum to all three affiliated committees. Funds that wind up in the coffers of the Republican Party of Kentucky can then be spent to support McConnell’s re-election, just as the group did during McConnell’s last election

These third-quarter pharmaceutical contributions greatly exceed what McConnell typically receives from the industry. For example, during the first and second quarters of 2019, McConnell for Majority Leader received a total of $63,000 from pharmaceutical interests, all from individuals affiliated with Eli Lilly. Contributions data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics do not show the joint fundraising committee ever receiving amounts these large from pharmaceutical industry donors in past cycles.

The third-quarter amounts are also large compared to what McConnell receives through his campaign committee, which receives far more money overall than his joint fundraising committee. A Kaiser Health News analysis of campaign contributions found that McConnell’s campaign committee received more than $85,000 from the pharmaceutical industry in the first half of the year, which USA Today reported was “a record for him over the course of the past eight years.”

Many of the companies whose PACs and executives made large donations to McConnell’s joint fundraising committee last quarter market drugs in the top 25 by sales revenue that would be impacted by Pelosi’s bill. Roche Pharmaceuticals, whose CEO, William Anderson, gave McConnell for Majority Leader Committee $15,600 on July 17, makes Avastin, a cancer drug that posted more than $2.8 billion in sales in 2018 and has no generic competitor. Eliquis, a top-selling drug with no generic competition that is used to reduce the risk of stroke and blood clots in people who have atrial fibrillation, is made by Bristol-Myers Squibb, whose CEO Giovanni Caforio gave McConnell for Majority Leader Committee $15,600 on July 22.

McConnell’s office did not respond to Sludge’s request for comment by the time of publication.


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