In a 30-second TV advertisement filled with footage of adorable dogs, Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), a veterinarian and farmer, touts his work to lower prescription drug prices.
Referring to the dogs, Schrader says, “I’m making a real difference for their owners too — taking on drug companies to lower insulin costs, making sure Medicare can negotiate lower drug prices, expanding Pell grants and career and technical education. And I’m leading the fight to get big money out of politics.”
But Schrader is not being completely honest about his record on prescription drug price policy.
He played a key role in watering down Democrats’ efforts to rein in prescription drug prices. And while Schrader portrays himself as a critic of “big money in politics,” Big Pharma has stepped in with major financial support for Schrader’s bid as he seeks to fend off progressive primary challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner in Oregon’s 5th Congressional District.
Schrader’s sleight of hand reflects the enduring influence of the biopharmaceutical industry in the Democratic Party, and the difficulty in exposing the sometimes complex ways that politicians advance the industry’s interests.
“It is the height of hypocrisy for Kurt Schrader to take credit for the bill that came out of the House on drug pricing and is now before the Senate when his principal contribution to that bill was to do everything in his power to weaken it,” said David Mitchell, president of the group Patients for Affordable Drugs. “He stood with Pharma against the will of voters who overwhelmingly want action, and the most effective possible action taken, to lower prescription drug prices.”
Patients for Affordable Drugs’ political arm has not endorsed a candidate in the May 17 primary.
“Congressman Schrader’s record of delivering results for Oregonians is clear.”
– Deb Barnes, Schrader campaign spokesperson
But allies of McLeod-Skinner, an attorney and central Oregon education service district board member, are seizing the opportunity to highlight what they see as Schrader’s dishonesty on the issue of prescription drug prices. The American Federation of Teachers-Oregon, a teachers union backing McLeod-Skinner, sent a letter to Schrader’s Capitol Hill office on April 12, calling for his campaign to remove the TV ad on the grounds that it contains “numerous false claims clearly intended to mislead Oregon’s voters.”
Schrader maintains that by voting for the Build Back Better Act, which passed the House and contained provisions empowering Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, his credentials on the matter remain above reproach.
“Congressman Schrader’s record of delivering results for Oregonians is clear,” Deb Barnes, a spokesperson for the Schrader campaign, said in a statement. “He has been a partner to the Biden Administration, helping to pass the Build Back Better Act that allows Medicare to negotiate prescription prices and cap the cost of insulin.”
Schrader’s campaign does not mention that he would not have supported the drug-price provisions, which are likely to become law as part of a budget bill that the Senate is due to take up, if House leaders had not granted his wish to grant Medicare weaker negotiating power than the bill originally contained.
That omission — in both the ad and the campaign’s statement — is “incredibly misleading,” according to Mitchell.
At issue is Schrader’s evolving stance on the provisions of what was once known as H.R. 3, a prescription drug pricing bill that he joined his Democratic colleagues in supporting in the last Congress.
That bill would have enabled the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate lower prices on at least 50 prescription drugs covered by Medicare. The limited number of drugs subject to negotiation already reflected a compromise with progressives in Congress, who fought to raise the minimum from 30 to 50.
But as provisions of the bill came up for a vote in the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee, Schrader was one of three centrist Democrats who voted against the provisions.
Schrader instead proposed enabling Medicare to negotiate only on the most expensive subset of prescription drugs.
Given the narrowness of Democrats’ majority in the House and the unanimous opposition of Republican lawmakers to this kind of drug-price legislation, House Democratic leaders subsequently needed to negotiate weaker drug-price provisions to ensure that the package would pass on the House floor.
Under the new bill text, a “small-molecule” drug would be eligible for price negotiation nine years after its introduction, and a biologic drug would be eligible for price negotiation 13 years after its introduction. The previous legislative language contained no such waiting periods.
By forcing the federal government to narrow the kinds of drugs subject to negotiation, Schrader and his allies reduced the potential savings to both patients and the federal government by hundreds of billions of dollars.
“It has taken 20 years, almost, to get to the point that we are within reach of passing legislation that will allow Medicare to negotiate over any drugs. And breaking that barrier is a big deal,” said Mitchell, who relies on expensive drugs to treat his incurable blood cancer. “But we could have had a stronger bill to help millions of more Americans if Kurt Schrader had not led this effort to weaken the bill on behalf of Pharma.”
Schrader and other lawmakers sympathetic to the concerns of the pharmaceutical industry argue that unduly aggressive price negotiation risks putting a damper on pharmaceutical research and innovation.
But the federal government plays a major role in funding the initial research that drug makers use to develop their products. Studies from nations like Germany, where governments negotiate drug prices, show little or no impact on the number of drugs approved for use. And through Medicare and other programs, the federal government guarantees the pharmaceutical industry tens of millions of customers for whatever drug they develop, granting the government some standing to influence the prices of those drugs.
In addition, Schrader’s reliance on contributions from the pharmaceutical industry raises the question of whether the sector’s financial largesse has affected his thinking.
Schrader is the 4th-largest recipient of contributions from pharmaceutical industry political action committees of any member of Congress in this election cycle.
Last summer, the Pharmaceutical Industry Labor-Management Association (PILMA), a Big Pharma-funded nonprofit that touts the industry’s use of union labor, aired TV ads thanking Schrader for opposing the original drug-price negotiation bill.
Now, as Schrader faces a primary battle, another group with pharmaceutical industry ties has mounted an independent spending initiative in support of Schrader. The Center Forward Committee, a super PAC funded by a Big Pharma-backed dark money group, has spent $464,000 to bolster Schrader on the TV airwaves as of this week and is slated to spend an additional $204,000 in the coming weeks, according to advertising data obtained by HuffPost.
With help from seasoned progressive groups like the Working Families Party and Indivisible, McLeod-Skinner has made Schrader’s coziness with pharmaceutical companies a central part of her pitch to voters. Like other left-leaning candidates, she has forsworn corporate PAC donations entirely.
“What’s the difference between me and Kurt Schrader? He takes millions in corporate PAC money. I won’t take a dime,” says McLeod-Skinner in her first TV ad.
One of the things that makes McLeod-Skinner’s campaign unique is the extent to which her bid has elicited the support of normally establishment-friendly groups. Four county Democratic parties in Oregon’s 5th — and a host of labor unions and Democratic elected officials — have endorsed her candidacy, an unusual development in a primary with a Democratic incumbent.
Part of the challenge for Schrader is that the district’s new boundaries include parts of central and Eastern Oregon that he did not previously represent. He has also angered some local Democrats with his vote against President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 recovery bill and his initial description of the 2021 impeachment of former President Donald Trump as a “lynching.”
But Schrader has the firm backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which added him to its list of “frontline” members in need of defending in December, and is taking an active role in his primary race.
The party body notes that the Democratic nominee in Oregon’s 5th will have to run against a Republican in a more rural, Republican-leaning seat than in previous election cycles. Biden won the old boundaries of Oregon’s 5th by nearly 10 percentage points, but would have won the new one by just under nine points.
“Congressman Schrader has been critical in advancing President Biden’s agenda — from fighting to lower the cost of prescription drugs and tackle our climate crisis to protecting a woman’s right to choose,” DCCC spokesperson Johanna Warshaw said in a statement. “We need a candidate who can win in November and keep delivering on these critical issues, and Congressman Schrader is the person for the job.”