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On prescription drug costs, Rubio makes a risky election year bet

Democrats have empowered Medicare to negotiate lower costs on prescription medications. Marco Rubio's effort to undo the policy is a bold gamble.


It was one of the biggest wins in the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act: For the first time, Medicare will be empowered to negotiate the cost of some of the most expensive prescription medications with the pharmaceutical industry. Democrats have worked on this issue for nearly three decades, but Big Pharma’s lobbyists successfully stood in the way. This year, Democrats succeeded anyway.

Republicans have effectively nothing to say about health care policy, with one big exception: GOP officials and candidates are eager to undo what Democrats did on drug costs.

As we discussed two weeks ago, many House Republicans haven’t just condemned the Democratic policy breakthrough, they’ve also vowed to repeal the policy at their earliest possible opportunity. In an interesting twist, some Senate Republicans are thinking along the same lines. The Washington Post reported on Friday:

Four Republican senators, including three up for reelection, have introduced a bill that would reverse a popular provision of the Inflation Reduction Act — a means to cut drug prices for Americans. Sens. Cynthia M. Lummis (Wyo.), Mike Lee (Utah), James Lankford (Okla.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) are backing a measure that could end Medicare’s ability to negotiate lower prescription drug costs and would limit Medicare recipients’ annual drug expenses at $2,000.

The bill itself is basically just a one-page proposal: These GOP senators want to simply roll back the clock, erasing the part of the Inflation Reduction Act that would empower the Medicare program to negotiate lower prices. The Republicans are calling their measure the “Protect Drug Innovation Act” — as if the only way to protect medicinal innovation is to keep prescription drug costs higher.

In a written statement, Rubio characterized the Democratic measure as "price controls," which he believes will "hurt" his constituents.

At face value, this isn’t altogether surprising. Indeed, one of the reasons the effort to lower costs has taken so long is that GOP officials have so consistently stood with the pharmaceutical industry against reforms.

What I do find surprising, however, are the electoral circumstances.

Wyoming’s Lummis won’t face voters again until 2026, and her re-election in one of the nation’s reddest states is all but assured. Utah’s Lee and Oklahoma’s Lankford are both up this year, but given their state’s partisan leanings, both are heavily favored.

But Rubio offers a qualitatively different kind of story. He represents Florida, after all, and the last time I checked, there are quite a few seniors in the Sunshine State who’ll benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act’s measures related to prescription drug costs.

Rubio didn’t have to endorse this, at least not before the election. There is exactly zero chance this bill will be considered in this Congress, so he had no real incentive to attach himself as a co-sponsor. It would’ve been politically smart to simply ignore this bill in the short term, while pursuing his regressive goals next year.

The Florida Republican nevertheless wants it to be known: Rubio is a conservative incumbent who, if re-elected, will side with pharmaceutical companies against a popular measure designed to help consumers afford their prescription medications.

It’s a bold gamble four weeks ahead of Election Day in a state filled with retirees.

Follow our 2022 midterm elections live blog at beginning Nov. 7 for the latest results, news and expert analysis in real time.