Bernie, on his agenda for the Senate health panel

By: Rachel Roubein; The Washington Post

Sen. Sanders wants to move “very aggressively” on the high cost of prescription drugs


You might not have guessed this: As Sen. Bernie Sanders takes the gavel of the chamber’s prestigious health panel, a hearing on Medicare-for-all isn’t at the top of his list.

The independent firebrand has long championed a far-reaching proposal to transform the nation’s health care into a single-payer system, succeeding in making the issue one of the top fights among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. But as the Vermont senator is poised to chair the Senate HELP Committee this Congress, he’s acutely aware that the policy is nowhere near close to having enough support to pass this year, though he will still introduce and publicly discuss the measure.

From the top of his new health perch, Sanders plans to instead push to move “very aggressively” on the high cost of prescription drugs, saying there’s an “incredible level of greed” within the pharmaceutical industry. And in an interview, he ticked off a list of broad areas he sees ripe for bipartisanship: lowering prescription drug prices, expanding primary care, bolstering the health workforce and beefing up rural health care.

Sanders’s comments underscore the tightrope the self-described democratic socialist must walk to pass legislation with a slim Democratic majority and find overlap with the panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Bill Cassidy (La.), a gastroenterologist and health policy wonk who Sanders hasn’t worked with much before. Some people on and off Capitol Hill have privately wondered whether Sanders will be able to build consensus among Republicans and within the Democratic caucus.

The 81-year-old plans to prove skeptics wrong by sitting down and talking with every lawmaker on his committee about their priorities, and said he’s already begun discussions with Cassidy. 

“Look, there are areas where there’s not going to be bipartisan support,” Sanders said. “There will be areas there are, and I will do my best to pursue those areas.”

The Details

The Senate health committee has sweeping jurisdiction over the nation’s public health agencies, the Food and Drug Administrationand other aspects of federal health policy. (Medicare-for-all and empowering the federal insurance program to negotiate the price of drugs are both technically under the purview of the Senate Finance Committee, but that doesn’t mean Sanders couldn’t use his high-profile platform to promote both policies.)

Aside from saying a hearing on Medicare-for-all wasn’t at the top of his list right now, Sanders didn’t offer a glimpse of the upcoming hearing schedule, other than to say he planned to “take the show on the road” by holding events outside of Washington, D.C. Nor did he hint at which health executives he planned to haul to Capitol Hill.

It’s a “little bit premature,” Sanders said, though he cited a letter he sent yesterday to Moderna demanding the company refrain from more than quadrupling the price of its coronavirus vaccine as an example of the issues he plans to pursue. Modernafor its part, said the company is “committed to pricing that reflects the value that covid-19 vaccines bring to patients, health-care systems and society.”

In a warning shot, Sanders noted that the committee has subpoena power. “We will use it judiciously, but we are prepared to use it when necessary,” he said.

Eye on Pharma

Sanders is known for his diatribes against the pharmaceutical industry. It’s no surprise that lowering the costs of medicine is high on his agenda, though it’s unclear what could get done in a divided Congress, particularly after Democrats passed their own drug pricing bill last year without GOP support.

The incoming chair didn’t detail specific policies, but he said that drug importation is one of the options. Last year, Sanders attempted to push a sweeping amendment allowing the importation of drugs from other countries through the HELP Committee to no avail, though he would have the power to make it more of a priority as the panel’s chair.

The powerful drug industry lobby pushed back on that idea. In a statement, Brian Newell, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said “the last thing we should do is pursue a risky importation scheme that will jeopardize the health and safety of the American people.”

“If you’re already an industry that’s in [Sanders’s] crosshairs, you need to be worried,” said one Democratic pharmaceutical lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “He’ll get out and get all his press, and he’ll find a way to actually pass something.”

But one thing Sanders won’t be doing? Paying attention to lobbyists. 

“My job is to listen to the needs of the American people, not the industry,” he said. “I’m interested in learning as much as I can, but we’re not going to be sitting down and getting lobbied by powerful corporate interests.”