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House to Vote on Drug-Price Negotiation Bill

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Today, the Democratic-led House wraps up its first full and busy week. Yesterday, members defied a presidential veto threat. They voted to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Today's bill also faces a promised veto. It calls for the government, rather than private insurance companies, to negotiate the price of prescription drugs for Medicare patients.

NPR's Julie Rovner has this report.

JULIE ROVNER: The one thing that scared drug makers most about the Medicare drug benefit was the prospect that the government would end up setting drug prices. So the Republican Congress that wrote a bill in 2003 banned the government from even negotiating with drug companies.

It left that task to private drug plants instead. That ban on government negotiations has irritated Democrats ever since. And now that they're in charge, they intend to do something about it. Michigan Democrat John Dingell is the lead sponsor of the bill the House will take up today.

Representative JOHN DINGELL (Democrat, Michigan): It requires the secretary of health and human services to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs on behalf of Medicare. I'm confident that the purchasing power of more than 40 million American Medicare beneficiaries will allow the secretary to achieve lower prescription drug prices. All he's got to do is have the will to use that.

ROVNER: At a competing news conference yesterday; however, Republicans like Eric Cantor of Virginia said the Democrats bill is the first step on a dangerous slippery slope.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia): Tomorrow's vote is nothing but a choice between consumerism and one-size-fits-all government-controlled health care. The government should not get between the American people and their doctor, and that is exactly what the Democrats are fixing to do.

ROVNER: Republicans are also pointing with some satisfaction to an estimate from a Congressional Budget Office issued earlier this week. It found the bill unlikely to save any money. Democrats however, say they're not surprise by that. CBO has said all along that the government would be unlikely to cut better deals with drug makers than private insurers.

Still, asked former Democratic congresswoman Barbara Kennelly, now head of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, if the bill wouldn't bring down drug prices -

Ms. BARBARA KENNELLY (National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare): Then please tell me why the pharmaceutical lobby is spending so much time and so much money on advertisement to defeat this bill.

ROVNER: In fact, economists who testified at a Senate finance committee hearing yesterday made it clear that the issue is far more complicated than either side is letting on. They agreed that competition is keeping prices in check for drugs with lots of alternatives - say for high blood pressure or high cholesterol - but in other cases, drug makers are making more than they were before the Medicare drug program began. And government intervention might save money for both patients and taxpayers. One case in point, patients whose drug coverage was transferred from the Medicaid program for the poor, over to Medicare.

Richard Frank teaches at Harvard Medical School. He says drug companies are hardly hurting.

Mr. RICHARD FRANK (Harvard Medical School): Some of the numbers reported during the first six months of 2006 are impressive. For example, the number is now been cited of 325 million to Pfizer's bottom line for the same drugs and the same people.

ROVNER: The bill is expected to pass, in part that's because the drug industry isn't lobbying Democrats all that hard to vote no. They have bigger bills coming up later in the year and they don't want to cash in all their chits on the bill they see largely as a political statement.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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INSKEEP: You're listening to NPR News.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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