President plays “Trump Card” with seniors

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Published: 10/16/2020 9:44:13 AM

On Sept. 24, Donald Trump held a press conference in Charlotte, N.C. to present the media with his new America First Health Care Plan. Trump signed an executive order outlining the thhree pillars of his plan — including a plan to lower the price of prescription drugs — a promise he made as a candidate four years ago.

Under Trump’s drug plan, “we will pay the exact same price as other countries … we will be matching the lowest price with what’s now many times the highest price, and we won’t pay a penny more.…This will lead to a very large savings for American families and plummeting drug prices.”

“I’m taking on Big Pharma like never before,” Trump boasted. “Nobody has done this before.”

The Trump administration had been meeting with large drug companies to get their support for something called “most-favored nation” pricing. “You get the best prices,” Trump explained, “the lowest — no matter where it is anywhere in the world.”

Trump implied that he was close to a deal. “Big Pharma is calling and negotiating … they want to make a deal. And there’s a deal somewhere.… If we can make a deal, we will.”

But Trump knew as he spoke in North Carolina that negotiations with the drug lobbyists had failed. The New York Times reported nearly a week earlier that discussions had broken off. The tipping point was reached when the White House asked the drug manufacturers to pay for a $100 gift card to be sent to millions of older Americans just before the November election. “Some of the drug makers bridled at being party to what they feared would be seen as an 11th-hour political boost for Mr. Trump,” the Times said.

The Vice President of public affairs at PhRMAthe drug industry’s largest trade group — told reporters: “One-time savings cards will neither provide lasting help, nor advance the fundamental reforms necessary to help seniors better afford their medicines.” Any hope of achieving the “most-favored nation” approach to drug pricing seemed dead, when the head of PhRMA called Trump’s plan “irresponsible and unworkable.”

So Trump pivoted, and announced in Charlotte that he would give seniors a drug gift card himself. “Under my plan, 33 million Medicare beneficiaries will soon receive a card in the mail containing $200 that they can use to help pay for prescription drugs. Nobody has seen this before. These cards are incredible. The cards will be mailed out in coming weeks.”

The president did not say how he would finance this $66 billion plan, which some in the drug industry called the “Trump Card.” The White House said it had legal authority to send out the gift cards under a Medicare demonstration program to make Medicare more efficient and cost-effective.

“It’s not obviously legal,” the deputy director of the Kaiser Family Foundation Program on Medicare Policy told Slate magazine. “Because if you read the statute … it’s intended to be used … for testing changes to provider payments. Not sending money to Medicare beneficiaries themselves.”

It’s unclear how this $6.6 billion Trump giveaway would be paid for. Demonstration projects are supposed to be budget-neutral. The expected costs with a demonstration cannot be more than expected costs without it.

In August, Trump unilaterally deferred the Medicare payroll tax collections, depriving the Medicare Trust funds of potentially billions of dollars if employers don’t pay the tax. Now the president is raiding Medicare funds again for billions in gift cards for seniors. Recent polls show older voters shifting away from Trump. This election “bribe” may be targeted to win over senior votes in key swing states. “I will always take care of our wonderful senior citizens,” Trump told reporters in Charlotte. “As long as I’m P\president, no one will lay a hand on your Medicare. Your Medicare is going to be safe and it’s going to be solid.”

But Trump’s promise in 2016 to lower drug costs is reminiscent of his pledge to build a border wall — and have Mexicans pay for it. His desperate attempt on the eve of a national election to pay billions to elderly voters was too much even for drug industry lobbyists.

Maybe Trump should ask the Mexicans to pay for it.

Al Norman worked as executive director of the Massachusetts elderly home care system for 33 years. He is a Greenfield resident. (


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