Despite majority public support for authorizing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, legislators struggle to reverse the non-interference clause that makes it illegal.
The non-interference clause
Medicare is legally prohibited from negotiating drug prices directly with manufacturers thanks to the non-interference clause in the 2003 law that created Part D, the prescription drug program for Medicare beneficiaries. The non-interference clause disallows Medicare from negotiating drug prices directly with pharmaceutical manufacturers, interfering in negotiations by Medicare contractors, or publishing any information about negotiated drug rebates.
Instead, the private health insurance plans and prescription drug programs Medicare contracts to implement benefits conduct negotiations for discounts with drug manufacturers. Meanwhile, other government programs — Medicaid and the Veterans Administration—have successfully lowered drug costs by negotiating directly for discounted drug prices and rebates.
Strong public support stands for allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices
According to a KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) poll published in October 2021, there is broad-based public support for ending the non-interference clause. The poll showed that 83% of the survey participants favored allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices directly with manufacturers. Those in favor included a mix of 71% Republican, 82% of independents, and 95% Democrats.
Proponents of allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices in Parts B and D see Medicare’s ability to negotiate value-based drug pricing as an important part of the overall strategy for driving the U.S. health system towards value-based healthcare and lower drug prices, especially if the outcomes of the negotiations are made known to commercial insurance plans, the Marketplace, and self-insured employers.
Opponents believe that the Medicare system of price negotiations through contracted health plans and prescription drug plans promotes competition among drug manufacturers and protects patient access to drugs. They also cite a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) letter that states giving broad Medicare negotiating authority to the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) would, by itself, “likely have a negligible effect on federal spending”.
Recent legislative actions attempting to eliminate the non-interference clause
In 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed bill H.R.3, The Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act. Among other proposed fixes, the bill would authorize the Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary to negotiate prices for single-source, brand-name drugs that met certain criteria. When H.R.3 went to the Senate for approval, its progress stalled. In 2021, H.R.3 was reintroduced in Congress.
In November 2021, the the Build Back Better Act (BBBA) passed the U.S. House of Representatives but was also stopped dead in the Senate. Within that bill was an exemption to the non-interference clause to allow Medicare to negotiate prices for expensive drugs covered under Medicare Parts B and D. Despite the defeat of the BBBA, President Biden used his State of the Union address on March 1, 2022 to keep up the pressure and repeated his call to lawmakers to address the problem of drug pricing.
Value-based administrative levers
In 2016 a pilot project for Medicare Part B drugs was created to test the results of allowing Medicare to conduct drug pricing negotiations. It was designed to institute value-based drug pricing using an international pricing index for the few drugs covered under Part B. The prices of some Part B biologics and single-source drugs were tied to their lower average overseas price.
Although the pilot project could have been implemented without congressional approval, several lawsuits and injunctions prevented the implementation of the model. Finally, the Biden administration rescinded the proposed model in August 2021.
Besides the recent unsuccessful legislative efforts for Medicare drug price negotiations, HHS outlined some other possible administrative actions for drug pricing reforms based on President Biden’s September 2021 Executive Order 14036, Promoting Competition in the American Economy. Among the proposals suggested is the use of value-based pricing models:
• To improve transparency about pricing, rebates, and out-of-pocket spending through data collection from health insurers and pharmacy benefit managers
• Implementing Medicare total cost of care models to find ways to reduce spending, affect drug utilization, and improve patient outcomes
The need for drug pricing reforms in Medicare holds bipartisan support, especially as it relates to lowering out-of-pocket expenses for seniors. However, passing the legislation needed to realize those reforms remains a controversial and complicated matter. While work continues to pass drug price reform legislation, value-based payment models can provide data analytics to support drug price reductions in both the public and private sectors.
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