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Senate drug pricing hearing co-opted by Democratic protest over GOP health plan

  • Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Patty Murray, Al Franken, Chris Murphy and others refused to focus on the stated topic of Tuesday's hearing on drug prices.
  • Instead, the Democrats focused on GOP efforts to repeal and replace parts of Obamacare, which they say are too secretive.
  • Meanwhile, President Donald Trump met Tuesday with 13 GOP senators to discuss the health-care bill.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn

If Republican members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions expected to spend an entire hearing discussing the price of medicines on Tuesday, they were in for a surprise.

"I'm not going to ask any questions of the panel," Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy,of Connecticut said when he gained the floor. He, like most of his Democratic colleagues, focused instead on what they called the "secret Republican health plan," being negotiated behind closed doors without bipartisan input.

President Donald Trump met Tuesday with 13 GOP senators to discuss the health-care bill, including HELP committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, who disappeared from the drug pricing hearing midway through.

Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Patty Murray, Al Franken, Murphy and others refused to focus on the stated topic of Tuesday's hearing, called "The Cost of Prescription Drugs: How the Drug Delivery System Affects What Patients Pay."

"Let's be blunt," a clearly agitated Warren said during the hearing. "It is insane to have a bipartisan hearing on drug prices while the GOP is writing a secret bill to take away prescription drug benefits."

Murphy concurred.

"I hope eventually we can sit down and have a conversation about drug pricing that is meaningful and relevant," he said. "But this is irrelevant ... if 23 million Americans lose access to health insurance, they can't afford prescription drugs. So it doesn't really matter what we do."

A Senate aide told Axios on Monday, referring to the lack of a public draft of the health-care bill, that "We aren't stupid. ... We are still in discussions about what will be in the final product so it is premature to release any draft absent further member conversations and consensus."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday would not say when he expected the health-care bill to be released or a vote to be held.

Some observers suggested the Democratic senators' approach implies drug pricing legislation isn't a current priority for Congress.

"As evidenced that drug pricing is on the backburner, ranking member Patty Murray focused on GOP's ACA-repeal plan in her opening statement," Brian Rye, government policy analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, tweeted during the meeting.

That may be a relief for drug stocks — a key concern for the drug industry has been that government action on pricing would result in price controls that would cap industry profits. Trump, before he took office, said a number of times he didn't understand why the U.S. doesn't negotiate on the price of drugs.

Democrats though, who have largely championed the issue of prescription drug prices, will still have two more chances to home in on it: Tuesday's hearing was the first of three planned on the topic this year, said Alexander, before he left for the Republican meeting on the health-care bill.

— CNBC's Kayla Tausche contributed to this report.