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Democrats try to counter attack ads over drug prices

Early ads suggest health care and drug prices remain central to the battle for control of Congress

Facing a $5 million barrage of ads attacking their health care plans as “socialist,” Democrats are hitting back with a “five-figure” digital campaign thanking members in battleground districts for supporting a bill they say would lower the cost of prescription drugs. 

The ads, launched Tuesday by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, come as groups from both sides of the aisle are waging a messaging war over a Democratic proposal that would allow Medicare to negotiate prices for a subset of drugs with drugmakers based on average prices in certain foreign countries. 

Democrats are attempting to push through a drug pricing plan while they have control of the White House and narrow majorities in the House and Senate. The early attacks on the effort indicate that health care and drug prices — key issues in the last several campaign cycles — will remain central to the battle for control of Congress in 2022. 

The DCCC ads, shared first with CQ Roll Call, feature 16 Democrats in competitive races. Pictures of their faces are superimposed over text that says they have “the nerve to fight for lower prescription drug prices” while conservative groups try to “make affordable medicine seem scary.”

That’s a reference to an ad campaign launched by the conservative American Action Network earlier this month that described the Democrats’ drug pricing plan as “Nancy Pelosi‘s socialist drug takeover plan.” The American Action Network has spent $5 million on television and digital ads targeting 48 Democrats this month.  

“If Republicans think that spending millions of dollars from their dark money allies for ads touting sky-high costs for prescription medication is a winning message, we won’t get in their way,” said DCCC spokesperson Helen Kalla. “In the meantime, House Democrats will continue listening to the American people and fighting for lower health care costs to make sure life-saving prescription medication is affordable for seniors and hard-working Americans.” 

The American Action Network receives millions of dollars annually from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the largest U.S. pharmaceutical trade association, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That includes a $4.5 million donation in 2019, which was PhRMA’s top political donation that year. The association, as well as the pharmaceutical industry at large, vehemently opposes the Democrats’ drug pricing proposal, arguing it would damage the industry’s ability to research and develop new treatments.

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The latest DCCC ads do not support 10 moderate Democrats who wrote a letter to Pelosi, the House speaker, earlier this month urging a bipartisan approach to drug pricing legislation. 

Another seven-figure ad campaign launched last week by the advocacy group Patients for Affordable Drugs Now urges Democrats across 42 districts to support price negotiations. That effort does target those members. 

The Democratic House majority passed a drug pricing plan, HR3, in 2019, with support from two Republicans, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington. But the bill died in the Senate in the last Congress and was reintroduced in April. The latest version does not indicate how the savings from the measure would be spent. Some Democrats want that money used to expand benefits under the 2010 health care law, while others also want to expand Medicare to include vision, dental and hearing benefits. 

It’s not clear how Democrats plan to advance drug pricing legislation with slim majorities in both the House and Senate. President Joe Biden called on Congress in an address to a joint session last month to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, but did not include it in his infrastructure proposals. 

Democrats credit their focus on the high cost of health care with helping them flip the House during the 2018 midterms elections. 

The 2019 version of the drug pricing bill played prominently in ads from both sides of the aisle at the beginning of the last campaign cycle. But those ads were quickly overwhelmed as both parties’ focus shifted early in 2020 to the coronavirus pandemic and the racial justice movement following the murder of George Floyd. 

Health care advocacy groups argue that any health legislation should include allowing price negotiations. 

“No matter what other policies lawmakers support to lower drug costs, giving Medicare the power and the teeth to negotiate for lower drug prices is the key to getting the job done. Anything else is a sham,” Leslie Dach, the chair of Protect Our Care, a group that formed to defend the 2010 health law, said in a Tuesday statement.

The Democrats featured in the new DCCC ads are: 

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