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OPINION: Partisan rancor takes a brief vacation

by CHUCK MALLOY/Guest Opinion
| March 22, 2024 1:00 AM

Here’s something that you don’t normally see in Washington — the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Finance Committee standing side-by-side at a news conference, talking about a bill aimed to help pharmacists and patients.

There was no casting of political blame, no bashing of President Biden’s policies, and no disparaging comments about former President Trump. It was two senators — Republican Mike Crapo of Idaho and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon — talking about a problem that has been around far too long.

They did not hide their frustrations about how pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) were making it challenging for patients (especially seniors) to obtain their needed medications. And there was no “diplomacy” when they talked about how these benefit managers, and their regulations, were driving community pharmacies out of business. Wyden and Crapo told the crowd of supporters at the virtual news conference that it’s high time for Congress to take action.

“This is not a complicated issue, folks,” said Wyden, who chairs the finance committee. “This is about the fact that two of us, two United States senators, believe that we should be helping patients, pharmacists, and taxpayers rather than the PBMs that are hijacking their money.”

The list of political supporters for the cause goes beyond two senators. The full committee has approved a reform bill by what Wyden jokingly described as “a very narrow vote — 26-0.”

That’s a noteworthy accomplishment in today’s political environment; it’s tough to get 26 Republicans and Democrats to agree on the color of the sky on a given day. But even the most partisan of senators can agree on who the “good guys” are on this matter.

“Unfortunately, certain pharmacy benefit management practices continue to jeopardize the viability and stability of pharmacies,” said Crapo, the committee’s ranking member. “This (reform) must happen now. Oversight protections for Medicare Part D have fallen short of the promise to protect seniors and their ability to access the pharmacy of their choice and cause far too many pharmacies to close shop.”

A strong reform bill, he said, will mean lower out-of-pocket Medicare and Medicaid costs for seniors, while enhancing accountability in federal health-care programs.

Crapo is not a newcomer to this cause. Last summer, he was in Twin Falls talking about the committee’s reform bill, targeted at a $500 billion PBM industry. The Times News of Twin Falls reported on Crapo’s Magic Valley visit.

“Our legislation takes aim at a wide range of problematic PBM practices, from inappropriate patient steering to opaque and unreasonable network contracts,” Crapo said in Twin Falls. 

The bill hardly qualifies as “fun reading,” but the senators are clear about the bottom line. PBMs, as they are operating, are a nightmare for consumers and pharmacy operations. It’s not surprising that Wyden and Crapo have the support of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and the National Community Pharmacists Association, for starters.

A number of Idaho groups are backing PBM reform, including the American Nurses Association, the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Idaho Retailers Association and the Idaho State Pharmacy Association.

According to a letter to Crapo from the group, the benefit managers “have used their control over the prescription drug supply chain and the high costs of some medicines to line their own pockets with record-setting profits. In the process they have increased costs for patients, narrowed where Americans can choose to access their prescription medications and in turn pushed long trusted independent pharmacies across the country out of business.”

Wyden and Crapo hear the message, loud and clear.

“The time for PBM reform was yesterday,” Wyden says. “It’s past time to crack down on the shady practices of these pharma middlemen that result in higher  drug prices for consumers across Oregon and nationwide. The Senate Finance Committee, on a bipartisan basis, is not backing down today, tomorrow, or ever until we get PBM reform in America to help pharmacists and patients. We want to put patients over profits and we’re going to stay at it until it gets done.”

A reform bill may not be the end-all political solution to the nation’s health-care problems, but it does get to the front lines of the battle. And while bipartisan unity is not a new venture for Crapo and Wyden, who are longtime colleagues from neighboring states, it’s refreshing to see it on display.

We’re not going to see much bipartisanship during this election-year campaign.

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Silver Valley native Chuck Malloy is a longtime Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com.