Advocates for lowering drug prices in the United States are raising alarm over an executive order issued by President Donald Trump on Sunday that the White House purports would challenge the nation's pharmaceutical industry but which critics say is just an election year ploy to make it look like the president is finally following through on a 2016 campaign promise he has neglected throughout his term.
The executive order itself would require that the secretary of Health and Human Services to "immediately" explore implementing a payment model for Medicare to pay "no more than the most-favored-nation price," which means the lowest price paid in other developed countries, for specific "high-cost" prescription medicines. While Trump celebrated the order as a far-reaching game-changer, experts said the move will likely have any little if any meaningful impact.
"The proposed executive order would appear to be of limited immediate effect," reported the Wall Street Journal. "Experts see the order as the administration's effort to show it is taking steps to lower drug pricing, as the president seeks reelection. Drug-pricing experts say that the best way to lower prices under Medicare is to grant the agency the legal authority to directly negotiate prices with drug companies. This measure wouldn't do that."
While much of the reporting on Trump's order focused on how "controversial" the bill was due to its cold reception by the powerful drug industry, Peter Maybarduk, director of the global access to medicines program at Public Citizen, was critical of the order precisely because Big Pharma will likely walk all over it by voicing the kind of challenges it issued upon Trump's announcement on Sunday.
According to Maybarduk, "European countries pay less because they negotiate and set basic disciplines on the prices that drug monopolists can charge. A direct way to lower medicine prices in the U.S. would be to give Medicare negotiation powers, as candidate Trump pledged back in 2016."
As NPR reports:
The new executive order repeals the original and expands the drugs covered by Trump's proposed "most favored nations" pricing scheme to include both Medicare Part B and Medicare Part D. The idea is that Medicare would refuse to pay more for drugs than the lower prices paid by other developed nations.
"It is unacceptable that Americans pay more for the exact same drugs, often made in the exact same places," the executive order declares.
Maybarduk warned in a tweet that the pharmaceutical industry "isn't going to suddenly start playing ball. Pharma will challenge rules that come out of the order. Also, the EO indicates what USG should pay, but does not appear to regulate what corporations charge."
"This is a massive win for the drug industry and another broken drug pricing promise by President Trump," said Eli Zupnick, spokesman for Accountable Pharma, in a statement Monday. "The drug industry is going to act like this weak executive order is a horrific injustice but the reality is that they were wildly successful in lobbying their former colleagues in the Administration to delay and water down this executive order to the point where it almost certainly won't save a single American a single penny on their prescription drugs."
Other critics of the move said it reeked of election year politics, with some suggesting that it should do more to expose how little Trump has done on the issue—and the low priority its been given by an administration that has shown little regard to protecting public health or improving access to more affordable medications.
"President Trump's executive order on drug pricing does not by itself do anything. It has to be followed up by regulations, which will take time," warned Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation in a tweet. "Trump has a history of bold talk on drug prices, only to pull back when it comes to putting actual regulations in place."
Lower Drug Prices Now, an advocacy coalition of national and state-level affiliates which calls for lower and affordable drug prices for all Americans, warned that Trump's order should be seen for the reelection ploy by Trump that it is.
"No one should be fooled by President Trump's latest charade on drug prices," the group said in a Sunday night statement. "After three and a half years of endless empty rhetoric, Americans have seen their prescription drug prices go up, not down."
The group called the order nothing more than a public relations stunt "intended to distract Americans from the president's broken promises to seniors and the 200,000 Americans that have died from the coronavirus as a result of his failed Covid-19 response policies."
According to Axios' reporter Caitlin Owens, "given that he's had four years already to act on what was also a big issue in 2016, there's plenty of reason to be skeptical of this ever translating into official policy."
In December of last year, House Democrats passed H.R. 3, The Elijah Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act, by a vote of 230 to 192. While Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to take it up in the Senate—and received no support from the Trump White House—the legislation would have led to dramatically lower prescription drug costs nationwide and much further-reaching protections and benefits for Americans overall.
"A serious proposal to lower RX prices & take away drug corporations' monopoly power to charge whatever they want requires coordinated action from Congress—like the Medicare negotiations bill that President Trump rejected last year which included international price indexing," said Lower Drug Prices Now in its statement, referring to HR 3. "It's clear that this President is more interested in photo ops than passing laws to take on Big Pharma."
Peter Morley, a patient advocate, similarly met the announcement by the Trump administration with both anger and heartbreak.
"A PR stunt designed as an executive order on the affordability of prescription drugs does NOTHING," Morley tweeted. "Critical and chronically ill patients can still die by the lack of accessibility. It's just a game to this Administration. Sickening, LITERALLY."