House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled legislation this week that would give the federal government sweeping new authority to regulate and lower the cost of prescription drugs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declared the bill dead on arrival and told Politico it amounts to "socialist price controls."
In an exclusive interview with NPR, Pelosi suggested McConnell was in "the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry" and noted that President Trump shares her view that negotiating drug prices is good policy. "As the president said in the course of his run for office and since: 'We're going to negotiate like crazy. We're going to negotiate like crazy.' So perhaps Mitch is talking about the president, as well."
The speaker distanced herself from the central health care policies of two leading candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president.
Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts are advocating for eliminating private insurers in favor of a government-run health care system for all. Asked if she believed that was the right direction for her party to take on health care, Pelosi was succinct: "No, I do not."
The speaker is leading her party's efforts in Congress on prescription drugs. On that front she said that if she and the president can cut a deal, Trump will be able to get the votes necessary to pass the bill. "If the president says he supports a path similar to this, you will see some of the Republicans come around," she said.
Most Republicans and the drug lobby oppose the House bill, and McConnell's "socialist" line of attack echoes the broader argument Republicans are trying to make against the Democratic Party ahead of the 2020 elections. Pelosi pushed back on this line of attack, noting that the government in some cases already directly negotiates drug prices.
For instance, she noted the Department of Veterans Affairs is legally allowed to negotiate drug costs, but Medicare is not. "We are not intervening in the free market. We believe in the free market," Pelosi said. "But we do not believe that the free market should have the exploitation of consumers in our country with the support of the government by banning the ability for the secretary [of health and human services] to negotiate for lower prices."
Pelosi emphasized that health care was the leading issue in the last election. Pressed on what Democrats should do instead of "Medicare for All," Pelosi said she supports expanding the Affordable Care Act to include a public option that can compete with the private market. The speaker was a chief architect of the health care law.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is campaigning on a similar policy. Democrats tried and failed to include a public option in the original version of Obamacare. "We believe that the path of the Affordable Care Act is the way to go," Pelosi said.
Pelosi praised the Democrats who are advocating for Medicare for All and said she shares the goal of universal coverage, but it's not the practical way to get it done. "Again I salute them, and if that's what they believe, God bless them for that, but that is I think not the practical path to getting something done."