Health officials scramble to explain details of Trump’s $200 drug discount card

The official, one of several who briefed the media on the condition of anonymity, offered only one new detail: Some of the cards will go out before the election, while others will not arrive until after voters choose between Trump and his Democratic rival, former vice president Joe Biden.

With that showdown looming, Democrats blasted the administration for proposing to take $6.6 billion from Medicare and spend it on a one-time break for older Americans, a critical voting bloc for both candidates.

They criticized Trump for suggesting he would pay for the move with savings from a separate program that has yet to begin. Under that initiative, Trump wants to tie the price of some drugs covered by Medicare to lower prices available in some other countries with governments that have the authority to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies.

“After failing to take real action to lower seniors’ prescription drug prices, President Trump wants to steal from the Medicare Trust Fund for a desperately transparent political gimmick,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement released by her office. “The administration’s claim to be using imaginary savings from non-existent drug price reforms means that Trump’s coupons come at Medicare’s expense, and that seniors and taxpayers are paying the price for this stunt.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) labeled the maneuver a “taxpayer funded bribe.”

“It’s clear this president only cares about drug costs during campaign season, and Big Pharma will continue to get away with murder as long as he’s in office,” Wyden said in a statement on the Senate Finance Committee’s website. “Drug companies will be paying as much for this gimmick as Mexico is paying for The Wall.”

Trump made the surprise announcement of the discount cards Thursday evening during a speech billed as an outline of his health-care vision. It wasn’t mentioned in a briefing for journalists about two hours before his speech in Charlotte.

In his remarks, Trump called the discount cards a “historic provision to benefit our great seniors.” He said 33 million people on Medicare “will soon receive a card in the mail containing $200 that they can use to help pay for prescription drugs. Nobody’s seen this before.”

A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid about deliberations, said Thursday the idea of a drug discount originated in the office of White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows as a “last-minute thing that is still being worked out.”

Last week, the New York Times reported that lengthy negotiations to reduce drug prices had collapsed after Meadows insisted drug manufacturers pay for $100 discount cards that would be mailed to seniors before November. The pharmaceutical companies refused.

With little information to go on, experts in the arcane workings of Medicare regulations struggled Friday to assess the legal and practical details of Trump’s plan. Edwin Park, a research professor at the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families, said the administration is stretching to claim authority for the gambit under a waiver authorized in amendments to the Social Security Act. That waiver has long been used to test new ideas that might save entitlement programs money.

“It’s pretty flimsy at best to say we’re testing something, and we can use this authority to provide these discount cards,” Park said. “I think the clear question is . . . sending $200 drug discount cards to Medicare beneficiaries, what is it testing?”

“This is very different from a typical Medicare waiver,” added Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation and a former adviser to the White House and HHS under former president Bill Clinton. “Usually, the idea of a waiver is to save money.”

Rachel Sachs, an associate professor of law at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, questioned the wisdom of the initiative at this time. HHS, she said, is focused on battling the coronavirus pandemic and implementing other programs Trump has initiated by executive order.

“This is giving them one more task, which is difficult and is unlikely to help as many people,” she said.

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