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Arizonans really want this policy, but Kyrsten Sinema won’t let them have it

The Democratic senator and her powerful donors strongly oppose a health care measure that’s highly popular in The Valley.

Although the details of the Build Back Better social spending package are still being ironed out, it sure seems like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., succeeded in dismantling a measure that’s quite popular in her state. 

Politico reported Thursday that Sinema had reached a deal with President Joe Biden on a provision to let Medicare negotiate with companies over the prices of only some hospital-administered drugs, as well as drugs with expired patents. But that plan puts restrictions on negotiating that many Democrats don’t like, and the Biden administration didn’t even include it in a framework of the bill released Thursday afternoon. 

The conventional wisdom by day’s end was that House Democrats would either have to take the pared-back version of the Medicare negotiation provision — which many of them believe is insufficient — or get nothing at all. 

It’s worth noting that allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices is highly popular in Arizona. A poll commissioned by AARP last month found over 94 percent of Arizonans support it. And let me tell you something as a native Arizonan: Nothing but shade is that popular in The Valley. 

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on June 16. 2021.Stefani Reynolds / NYT via Redux file

The overwhelming support for the measure is understandable. Arizona is notorious for negligible health spending and rampant health inequality. It’s the eighth worst state for health care access, according to data compiled by U.S. News & World Report this year. The ranking was based on several factors, including health care affordability and health insurance enrollment. 

Regardless, Sinema — who has received more than $500,000 in campaign donations from pharmaceutical and health product companies — has been a staunch opponent of progressive health reforms throughout the monthslong Build Back Better negotiations. Following news of her watered-down drug price proposal, her staff went into spin mode:

“As she promised Arizonans, Kyrsten is working hard to ensure prescription drugs are available at the lowest cost possible, and she looks forward to continuing that work,” her spokeswoman, Hannah Hurley, told The Arizona Republic this week.

“Lowest cost possible” is doing a lot of heavy lifting there.

“I don’t know who’s advising her — whoever it is really needs to sit down and rethink this calculus,” Karl Gentles, a longtime political strategist in Arizona, told me this week.

Gentles has worked across the ideological spectrum over the last 30 years, from the late Republican Sen. John McCain’s office to the Maricopa County Democratic Party, where he currently co-chairs the Black engagement committee. He said Sinema is shooting herself in the foot by opposing a policy that’s likely to stay popular for years to come, given the growing number of seniors in Arizona.

“That community is going to continue to grow," Gentles said, "and allowing Medicare to negotiate better prices for prescription drugs has a direct impact on them.”

The spending bill is expected to be finalized next week. If Sinema’s latest power play is successful, and Medicare negotiations are left out, she’ll have satisfied her corporate donors in the pharmaceutical industry — even if it meant spurning her own state. 

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