Biden halts program that brings down cost of insulin, EpiPens

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

One focus during the Trump administration was lowering prescription drug costs, especially for low-income individuals. When he struck a deal with Big Pharma to lower the cost of insulin and epinephrine (EpiPens) for low-income patients, the White House rightly celebrated the accomplishment. Now the Biden administration has halted that initiative. Why does Joe Biden want to raise the price of such lifesaving drugs to those in greatest economic need?

The White House budget office cleared the Biden proposal to pause the Trump action that linked insulin and EpiPen discounts. Trump’s rule required certain 340B health centers to pass the discounts along to its patients in need. The rule wasn’t even a wide-sweeping order. It was a narrowly targeted act that only pertained to roughly 1,000 health care facilities. Some 340B groups argue it increases administrative burdens and may limit access. HHS is expected to publish the retraction next week.

The federal program is not new. It is a program which began in 1992 during the George H.W. Bush administration.

The 340B Drug Pricing Program is a US federal government program created in 1992 that requires drug manufacturers to provide outpatient drugs to eligible health care organizations and covered entities at significantly reduced prices. The intent of the program is to allow covered entities to “stretch scarce federal resources as far as possible, reaching more eligible patients and providing more comprehensive services.” Maintaining services and lowering medication costs for patients is consistent with the purpose of the program, which is named for the section authorizing it in the Public Health Service Act.

The program fills a need. It is also one area in Washington that receives bipartisan support. Why would Joe Biden want to stop a program that serves those in greatest need? It may boil down to the fact that it is one more action that Biden is taking to erase the good work Trump accomplished in office. That sounds petty and childish but what other explanation is there? None has been provided by the White House. Biden promised to be a president that would bring Americans together and work with everyone. From day one, he has broken that promise, often cutting off his nose to spite his face simply to be able to say he reversed a Trump action. Trump’s drug price reducing legacy is on Biden’s chopping block.

Did Biden do this to appease a special interest group? The National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) applauds the move. The group opposed Trump’s executive action signed last July. It claims that instead of helping community health centers and the 30 million patients they serve, most of whom are living in poverty and/or uninsured, it will bury centers in more red tape. While Trump’s intention was to cut prices, NACHC claims that would accomplish the opposite. NACHC said it would ultimately “make it harder for health centers to provide affordable life-saving services and prescription drugs — especially during the pandemic.”

“We are deeply grateful the Biden Administration put the brakes on such a harmful rule within hours of taking office. Health centers, bipartisan Members of Congress and leaders within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have indicated that this rule will do more harm than good at a time when too many people are suffering,” said Tom Van Coverden, President and CEO of NACHC. “We hope that this is further acknowledgment that a pandemic is no time to destabilize the safety net. Certainly, the high cost of prescriptions remains a national crisis – but health centers are already part of the solution to this problem, and the regulation would have burdened them with excessive red tape without doing anything to lower how much drug companies charge for drugs.”

Health centers readily acknowledge that the costs of pharmaceuticals in this country are too expensive for most Americans, especially for our low-income friends and family members and for the nation’s most medically underserved. This is why NACHC works so hard to protect the vital 340B program — to keep prescription prices low for our patients. NACHC has made protecting the 340B program at health centers a top priority as the White House EO and subsequent regulation was part of a series of assaults on the program in recent months. Members of Congress from both parties joined with health center leaders in expressing concern about the EO and highlighted health centers as excellent stewards of the 340B program, using the savings it generated as Congress intended.

Instead of working to make deals with Big Pharma that are beneficial to all parties, Democrats like one representative from Iowa want to concentrate on punishing Big Pharma. The ironic part is that the pharmaceutical companies who are so distrusted and disdained are already taking a financial hit by signing on to such agreements.

U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne (D-IA) was among the lawmakers who spearheaded a letter to HHS requesting they rescind or decline to enforce the EO. “By targeting the centers providing these medications to those without insurance or the means to get the care instead of big pharmaceutical companies, HHS risks making things worse for a community already in need,” said Axne in a press release. “Community Health Centers provide critical lifelines in our communities. They aren’t the reason why drug costs, especially insulin costs, are too high in this country.”

Democrats don’t want to take the win because it was brought about by Trump. It’s a win-win situation. Patients who are most in need of drugs basically provided at cost by pharmaceutical companies and living in rural communities with limited choice in available health care facilities will be the ones who suffer from such short-sighted pettiness.

The Diabetes Leadership Council has taken notice. It has launched a digital and tv ad campaign to push back. The Council wants “less talk, more action” on drug pricing reforms.

It’s a shame. Reducing the price of prescription drugs is one area that has bipartisan support in Congress. Offering discounted life-saving drugs to rural Americans at the expense of Big Pharma profits, with Big Pharma’s willing cooperation, sounds like something everyone should support.