Basically every other industrialized nation on earth has dramatically lower prescription drug prices because their governments negotiate on behalf of their citizens for lower drug prices. Even for Democrats this common sense solution to our insanely high drug prices is a step too far, so Democrats have been promoting the idea of drug re-importation. Now Democrats like Obama are working hard to kill an idea they once claimed to champion because they fear several Republicans previously opposed to the idea might now support it to get back at PhRMA, in an attempt to get PhRMA to turn on Obama.
Drug re-importation is a convoluted, roundabout way to get lower drug prices for Americans by freeloading on the negotiations done by the governments of New Zealand, Canada, UK, Germany, etc. While not the most direct or best solution, it would significantly help bring down drug prices for Americans. The important thing politically is that the idea has just barely enough of a fake free-market whitewash to give Republicans and conservative Democrats sufficient plausible deniability to allow them get behind de facto support of government price control.
Barack Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, campaigned on the idea of drug re-importation. They both co-sponsored bills to allow re-importation only a few years ago. It was a big part of Obama's health care plan on the campaign trail. Yet Obama cut a secret deal with PhRMa to stop drug re-importation in exchange for the promise of much smaller savings granted directly by PhRMA, and, of course, their political support for reform.
This deal did not sit well with many people. It rubbed health care reform activists the wrong way because they know PhRMA could pony up eight times as much money. It angered some Republicans who felt betrayed by their industry BFF, especially after they were so good to PhRMA with the Medicare part D boondoggle. It really bothered a handful of Republicans who have championed drug re-importation despite the industry push back, and thought this was their chance to get measure passed. It also was a big slap in the face to Democratic members of Congress like Senator Byron Dorgan (ND), who were not part of the deal. They support the idea for policy reasons, and also need to show their constituents that they are working for them before possibly difficult re-election campaigns.
This has caused one of the strangest possible stand-offs in American politics. Byron Dorgan got the chance to bring up his bipartisan drug re-important amendment. My understanding is that the Democrats are now afraid Dorgan's amendment will pass, and that would blow up Obama's deal with PhRMA, possibly scuttling the whole bill. The reason Dorgan's amendment might get enough votes to pass is that several Republicans previously opposed to this popular proposal are considering voting for the amendment to get back at PhRMA and turn PhRMA against Obama. Somehow, convincing a large number of Republicans to vote for one of Obama's top campaign promises on health care reform is now seen by Harry Reid as a bad thing. Of course, drug re-importation is one of a handful of ideas yet offered that will actually “bend the cost curve,” and neither Obama, Peter Orzsag, nor Harry Reid has said anything in support of Dorgan's amendment.
To prevent this scenario, the Democrats in the Senate have spent the last few days effectively filibustering their own health care reform bill and amendments. The pro-PhRMA Democrats have put a hold on Dorgan's amendment, and Dorgan in turn has put a hold on everything else. As a result, the Senate health care debate on the floor has been frozen for almost a week.
Frank Lautenberg offered an amendment on “safety” that will effectively gut Dorgan’s amendment in an attempt to let senators vote for drug re-importation and then vote to effectively kill drug re-importation. The problems for Democrats trying to defend PhRMA continues because Lautenberg's amendment seems likely to fail at this point. This still puts Democrats in the awkward place of delaying progress on their own top priority of health care reform because a Democratic amendment to advance a big Democratic promise might have enough bipartisan support to pass.
The delay is giving the Democratic Senate leadership a few possible ways to solve the problem, and none of them are pretty. They might be hoping to whip enough votes against Dorgan's amendment or for Lautenberg's. The time might let PhRMA and the White House cut a new, slightly better deal, and reporting indicates that negotiations between PhRMA and the White House are taking place right now. A better deal with PhRMA could convince Democratic supporters of Dorgan's amendment to back down. Finally, Reid might be stalling until he gets a compromise that will allow him to file for cloture and prevent a vote from ever happening on the Dorgan amendment.
This insane, multiple double-double cross is sausage-making at its most ugly. It shows how completely broken our government and especially the Senate truly are. When you have Democrats filibustering their own bill to stop Republicans from voting for an amendment to advance a top promise of the Democratic party, you know something is very, very wrong.