Democrats secured the House majority Tuesday night for the first time in nearly a decade with a projected majority of as many as 35 seats. The victory promises a new era of checks on the Trump administration’s healthcare regulatory agenda as well as a possible odd-couple alliance with the White House against Big Pharma.
The GOP held the Senate as expected, gaining on its slim margin with at least two pickups in Indiana and North Dakota. This tightly calibrated Congress likely won’t push any major healthcare legislation. And Obamacare will remain in place—albeit tweaked at the state level and through administration policies so the law increasingly looks like a mix of competing Democratic and GOP visions.
Analysts don’t expect any big-picture legislation as the sprint to the 2020 presidential election begins. In the especially polarized politics of healthcare, each party bends with their voters, said Robert Blendon, a Harvard University professor of health policy and political analysis. While healthcare polls as a top issue with the majority of voters, priorities shift fast depending on which party is surveyed.
“If I were (saying this) in the mid-1990s, I would say the issues top of mind for all voters would determine what the new House would actually do,” Blendon said. Pundits called this midterm cycle a base election: healthcare in the 116th Congress will depend on finding the give in the gridlock over a divisive topic.
Democrats have framed drug pricing as a rare policy area where they can work with the president—the common enemy there is Big Pharma.
Still, following an election that swept them to power as a referendum on Trump, some Beltway insiders doubt Democrats will bend much. Pharma’s panic level will depend on how well this relationship can work, and that’s not only up to Democrats: it’s up to the White House and Trump’s top lieutenants as well.
In her victory speech Tuesday night, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)—expected to stay on as speaker of the House given the party’s success—said Democrats would pass legislation for direct Medicare negotiation with drug companies. This was a core part of Trump’s own campaign platform. But HHS Secretary Alex Azar has pushed back on such a policy.
Key lawmakers poised to step into influential committee positions have criticized the Trump administration’s drug pricing strategy for not going far enough. These include Cummings on oversight; Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas who may get the House Ways and Means health subcommittee gavel; and Vermont’s Rep. Peter Welch, who sits on the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. As a counterpoint, however, Pharma ally Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat who represents a biotech-dominated district in California, is next in line for the Energy and Commerce health subcommittee gavel.
Criticisms notwithstanding, Azar stunned industry and experts last month with a proposal to tie U.S. drug prices to their lower-cost counterparts abroad. Some industry analysts viewed that as leverage to get Big Pharma to the negotiating table despite that being the boldest move of any administration yet, even as House Democrats said it needed to be bolder.
“Instead of nibbling around the edges, (Trump) should demand in his State of the Union speech that Congress send to his desk within 30 days a broad price negotiation bill that applies to all drugs in the Medicare program,” Welch said in a release after Trump unveiled the policy proposal.
Smaller measures targeted at cost could pass bipartisan muster.
This year the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has focused its hearings on cutting healthcare costs. A bipartisan group of senators has pushed variations of a bill to curb outsize balance bills from hospitals.
As health insurance co-pays and deductibles rise and provider networks narrow, price woes will stay top of mind even as the ACA becomes more entrenched in insurers’ business models. Nearly 75% of individual market plans restrict their provider networks, according to the consulting group Avalere—a steep rise from 2014. Nearly 90% of people in exchange plans hold the IRS definition of a high-deductible plan of more than $1,300.
So as 2020 approaches, voters’ focus may stray from the Obamacare coverage arguments while remaining keenly focused on their wallets—as Pelosi and Senate Republicans seem to be aware.
One longtime House Democrat said she for one wants to see more compromise on the many healthcare issues “that really aren’t partisan.”
“Everybody’s up again in two years and that includes a number of key Republicans in the Senate,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). “In terms of bipartisanship I look rather fondly back to the Bush administration when we actually got things passed and done. And in part that’s because the definition of the job included the word compromise—it wasn’t a dirty word back then.”
It remains to be seen what levels of compromise a base election can yield.