Republicans’ Mixed Messages on Federalism

Care to take a guess how many Republican senators are willing to take a stand over federalism? Would you believe just two?

On Monday night, when the Senate considered legislation sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) about “gag clauses” in pharmaceutical contracts, only Utah’s Mike Lee and Kentucky’s Rand Paul voted no. Lee and Paul do not believe the federal government has any business providing for blanket regulation of the health-care sector.

Gag Clauses, Explained

I have experienced the distorted ways the drug pricing system currently operates. When looking to refill a prescription for one of my antihistamines, my insurance benefit quoted me a charge of $170 for a 90- to 100-day supply. But when I went online to GoodRX.com, I found online coupons that could provide me the same product, in the same quantities, for a mere $70-80, depending on the pharmacy I chose.

I found even greater discounts by purchasing in bulk. I ended up buying a nearly one year’s supply of my maintenance medication for $210—little more than the price for a 90-100 day supply originally quoted to me by my insurer. Had I used my insurance card, and refilled the prescription repeatedly, I would have paid approximately $300 more over the course of a year. Because my Obamacare insurance is junk, I have little chance of reaching my deductible this year, short of getting hit by a bus, so it made perfect sense for me to pay with cash instead.

In theory, anyone can go to GoodRX.com (with which I have no relationship except as a satisfied consumer), or other similar websites, to find the cash price of prescription drugs and compare them to the prices quoted by their insurers. But in practice, few try to shop around for prescription drugs.

Why Federalism Matters

In general, conservatives would support efforts to increase transparency within the health-care marketplace, and prohibiting “gag clauses” would do just that. However, some conservatives would also note that the McCarran-Ferguson Act of 1947 devolves the business of regulating insurance, including health insurance, to the states, and that the states could take the lead on whether or not to eliminate “gag clauses” in insurance contracts. Indeed, a majority of states—26 in total—have already done so, including no fewer than 15 state laws passed just this year.

Lee’s office reached out to me several weeks ago for technical assistance in drafting an amendment designed to limit the scope of federal legislation on “gag clauses” to those types of insurance where the federal government already has a regulatory nexus. Lee ultimately offered such an amendment, which prohibited “gag clauses” only for self-insured employer plans—regulated by the federal government under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).

Unfortunately, only 11 senators—all Republicans—voted for this amendment, which would have prevented yet another intrusion by the federal government on states’ affairs. Of those 11, only Lee and Paul voted against final passage of the bill, due to the federalism concerns.

More Federalism Violations Ahead?

One of the prime sponsors of the discussion draft? None other than Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), the author of legislation introduced last year that he claimed would “give states significant latitude over how [health care] dollars are used to best take care of the unique…needs of the patients in each state.”

The contradiction between Cassidy’s rhetoric then and his actions now raise obvious questions: How can states get “significant latitude over” their health care systems if Washington-based politicians like Cassidy are constantly butting in with new requirements, like the “surprise medical bill” regulation? Or, to put it another way, why does Cassidy think states are smart enough to manage nearly $1.2 trillion in Obamacare funding, but too stupid to figure out how to solve problems like drug price “gag clauses” and “surprise bills?”

Politics Versus Principle

The widely inconsistent behavior of people like Cassidy raises the possibility that, to some, federalism represents less of a political principle to follow than a political toy to manipulate. When Washington lawmakers want to punt a difficult decision—like how to “repeal” Obamacare while “replacing” it with an alternative that covers just as many people—they can hide behind federalism to defer action to the states.

Reagan had another axiom that applies in this case: That there is no limit to what a person can do if that person does not mind who gets the credit. Lawmakers in literally dozens of states have acted on “gag clauses,” but that matters little to Collins, who wants the federal government to swoop in and take the credit—and erode state autonomy in the process.

It may seem novel to most of official Washington, but if lawmakers claim to believe in federalism, they should stick to that belief, even when it proves inconvenient.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know about President Trump’s Drug Pricing Plan

On Friday, President Trump gave a Rose Garden speech outlining his plan, entitled “America’s Patients First,” to combat rising drug prices. The plan incorporates policy ideas included in the president’s budget earlier this year, new proposals, and additional topics for discussion that could turn into more specific ideas in the future.

What’s the Problem?

Surveys suggest public frustration with the cost of prescription drugs. While such costs represent a small fraction of overall spending on health care, several dynamics help the prescription drug issue gain disproportionate attention. First, in any given year, more Americans incur drug costs than hospital costs. Whereas only 7.3 percent of Americans had an inpatient hospitalization in 2013, more than three in five (60.7 percent) had prescription drug expenses.

With more Americans incurring drug costs, and paying a larger percentage of drug costs directly from their pockets, the issue has taken on greater prominence. The rise of coinsurance (i.e., paying a percentage of drug costs, rather than having those costs capped at a set dollar amount) for pricey specialty drugs exacerbates this dynamic.

What Are the Proposed Solutions?

In general, ways to address drug prices fall into three large buckets.

Controlling costs through competition: These solutions would involve bringing down price levels by encouraging generic competition, or substituting one type of drug for another.

Shifting costs: These solutions would alter who pays for drugs among insurers, pharmaceutical benefit managers (PBMs), or consumers. While they may make drugs more “affordable” for consumers, they will not change overall spending levels. In fact, if done poorly, these types of proposals could actually increase overall spending, by encouraging individuals to increase their consumption of costly brand-name drugs.

Drug company and PBM stocks went up Friday following the blueprint’s release, largely because the plan eschews actions in the second bucket. The president’s plan includes a few tweaks to the system of “rebates” (de facto price controls) the Medicaid program uses, but includes none of the major Democratic proposals to use blunt government action to drive down prices.

In fact, the plan criticizes foreign price controls, attacking the “global freeloading” by which other countries gain the research and development benefits of the pharmaceutical industry without paying their “fair share” of those R&D costs. While the plan frequently mentions the disproportionate share of costs American consumers pay, it includes few specific proposals to rebalance these costs to other countries. It also remains unclear whether, if successfully implemented, any such rebalancing would successfully lower prices in the United States.

Other competitive proposals include giving Medicare Part D plans more flexibility to adjust their formularies mid-year to respond to changes in the generic drug marketplace, and prohibiting Part D plans from including “gag clauses.” These clauses prohibit pharmacies from telling consumers that they would actually save money by paying cash for certain drugs, rather than using their insurance.

In the cost-shifting bucket lie several of the proposals incorporated into the president’s budget. For instance, a cap on out-of-pocket expenses for the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit would provide important relief to seniors with very high annual drug costs. However, to the extent that such a proposal would encourage seniors to over-consume drugs, or purchase more costly brand-name drugs, once they reach such a cap, this proposal could also increase overall Part D spending.

In a similar vein lie proposals about PBMs passing drug rebates directly to consumers at the point of sale. In most cases, PBMs had previously passed on those savings indirectly to insurers in the form of lower premiums. Giving rebates directly to consumers—a practice some insurers have begun to adopt—would provide relief to those with high out-of-pocket costs, but could raise premiums overall, particularly for those with relatively low prescription spending.

What’s Next?

The plan raises more questions than it answers—quite literally. The last and longest section of the blueprint includes 136 separate questions about how the administration should structure and implement some of the proposals discussed in the document.

Some proposals, while eye-catching, seem ill-advised. For instance, the proposal to “evaluate the inclusion of list prices in direct-to-consumer advertising” raises potential First Amendment concerns—government dictating the content of drugmakers’ communications with patients. Moreover, with many Americans viewing health care as a superior good, some consumers may view a more expensive product as “better” than its alternative. In that case this proposal, if ever implemented, could have the opposite of its intended effect, encouraging people to consume more expensive drugs.

The plan did not include the heavy-handed approaches to the prescription drug issue—Medicare price “negotiation” and drug reimportation—that Democrats favor, and that President Trump endorsed in his 2016 campaign. The document also makes clear the iterative nature of the process, with additional proposals likely coming after feedback from industry and others.

But to the extent that Washington has become consumed by the midterm elections fewer than six months away, the high-profile event Friday allowed Republicans and the president to say they have a plan to bring down drug prices—an important political objective in and of itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.