This new group is angry about high drug prices — and plans to make candidates pay attention in 2018 elections

Key Points
  • A new group will seek to make rising pharmaceutical prices an issue in the 2018 elections for Congress, statehouses and governorships.
  • Polls have repeatedly shown that Americans believe reducing drug prices is a top priority for Congress.
  • President Donald Trump has said he wants prescription prices lowered, but has been criticized for not taking stronger action to meet that goal.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., flanked by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Bob Casey, Jr., D-Pa., Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, speaks during a news conference on legislation that will allow for drug importation while maintaining important safety standards on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017.
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

A group launched Thursday plans to make rising drug prices an issue in the 2018 midterm elections.

The group, Patients for Affordable Drugs NOW, will back federal and state candidates who support legislative efforts to reduce high prescription medication costs, and target candidates who don't share those goals.

It also will lobby Congress and state legislatures to "fix our broken drug pricing system," the group said in a statement.

Americans "are hurting under high drug prices," said Ben Wakana, president of Patients for Affordable Drugs NOW.

"What we are trying to do is demonstrate to elected officials the pain in their districts that people are feeling."

Wakana, who served as a spokesman for the U.S. Health and Human Services Department in the Obama administration, said he is not aware of any previous group that sought to make high drug prices a campaign issue nationally during an election year.

The group said it will have a budget of more than $1 million for this campaign cycle.

Wakana said the issue of drug prices transcends political party lines.

He pointed to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll that found 60 percent of Republican voters said lowering prescription drug prices should be a top priority for Congress.

David Mitchell, a cancer patient and founder of Patients for Affordable Drugs NOW, said, "Anyone's who's been a patient or a family member of a patient knows that drug corporations rake in record profits and rip off Americans struggling to pay the bills."

The new group, in an announcement of its plans for this election season, noted that drug corporations "spent $20 million lobbying and donated $246 million to politicians in the last election cycle."

The group said it "aims to act as a counterbalance to the pharmaceutical lobby."

Wakana said it as of yet does not have any specific candidates that it plans to endorse or oppose.

But to come up with those lists, the group already has sent questionnaires to more than two dozen incumbent members of Congress, congressional challengers and governors requesting information on their plans to lower drug prices.

The group's launch comes days after President Donald Trump repeatedly said he wants drug prices reduced.

On Monday, at the swearing-in of new Health and Human Services Department Secretary Alex Azar, Trump vowed that the former pharmaceuticals company executive is "going to get those prescription drug prices way down."

On Tuesday night, during his State of the Union address to Congress, Trump said, "One of my greatest priorities is to reduce the price of prescription drugs."

"In many other countries, these drugs cost far less than what we pay in the United States," Trump said. "And it is very, very unfair."

Despite those words, which echo Trump's criticism of drug prices in the past, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said on the heels of the president's speech that "I was stunned by the complete and utter disconnect between his words and reality."

Cummings, in an emailed statement, said that he, "More than any other member of Congress," has "tried over and over and over to work with" Trump on legislation that could help reduce drug prices. Those include a bill that would allow Medicare, the government-run health coverage system for primarily senior citizens, to negotiate directly with pharmaceuticals companies on prices.

Cummings pointed out that he and Rep. Pete Welch, D-Vt., met with Trump last March to discuss rising drug costs and that the two congressmen gave the president a draft of the Medicare bill. Trump "seemed enthusiastic about the proposal," according to Cummings' office.

"But all I have heard back is radio silence," Cummings said. "Instead, his actions have gone in exactly the opposite direction — tapping a pharmaceutical executive to lead HHS and giving drug companies one of the biggest tax breaks in history despite their already record profits," Cummings said.

"These aren't just empty promises, they are obvious falsehoods. I must keep up hope that the President will finally change course, and I stand ready to work with him or anyone else should that happen."

In his State of the Union address, Trump "made clear lowering drug prices and combating the opioid crisis are priorities for his Administration," said a White House representative who didn't want be named. "The President looks forward to ongoing work with his Cabinet, Congress and local leaders on the best path to tackle these issues."