AARP Urges Federal Drug Negotiating Powers

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:32pm EDT

( - The nation's largest seniors' advocacy group on Wednesday launched a campaign to urge lawmakers to support legislation that would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.

The AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) is recruiting its 38 million members in a "National Call to Action" to pressure U.S. senators to give the government the authority to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies the cost of prescription drugs covered by Medicare.

Through its website, AARP offers a form letter for supporters to send to their senators via e-mail. A phone service is also available to connect callers directly with their senators' offices to voice their support for the legislation.

"Drug prices are too high, the pharmaceutical industry wants to keep them high and AARP will not stand by and let the industry block passage of legislation that has overwhelming public support and makes so much sense," AARP Director of Government Affairs David Sloane said in a statement.

The Senate is expected to examine the bill this spring. A House version of the bill passed through the U.S. House in January during House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) push to pass seven legislative items in the new Congress' first 100 hours.

According to AARP, its members generated more than 100,000 phone calls and emails when the House bill was under consideration. The Senate lobbying effort will include radio and newspaper ads in 10 states and on Capitol Hill.

The seniors' group declared in its release that its drug negotiating proposal enjoys widespread public support. A poll released by AARP in February found that 87 percent of Americans "support a proposal to allow Medicare to use its bargaining power to negotiate prescription drug prices."

But opponents of the plan doubt such a strategy would be effective. They point out that public support for the proposal erodes when negative ramifications are introduced in the questioning.

A survey conducted in December by the Tarrance Group, a Republican polling firm, found that while the public "overwhelming supports the [House] proposal ... once voters are educated about the possible downsides of this proposal, public support evaporates and voters overwhelmingly oppose it."

Opponents of the legislation contend that it would limit patients' ability to choose from a wide variety of drugs and that it would "give the government the right to create a single list of government-approved prescription drugs for seniors to choose from," according to the poll.

The Tarrance Group survey found that 81 percent of Americans do not believe the government is a good price negotiator and 75 percent stated that the market, not the government, should set prescription drug prices.

AARP insists that its proposal would not amount to marketplace interference and would not necessarily limit the selection of drugs for Medicare patients.

"Medicare has an obligation to all Americans to be a prudent purchaser of health care service," AARP said in a statement. "The Secretary (of Health and Human Services) will determine how to use negotiating authority to achieve that end."

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