Hillary on drug prices: An issue voters actually care about

    Prescription drug bottles are pictured overhead

    Prescription drug bottles are pictured in this file photo. (Shutterstock)

    Seriously, which issue does the average voter care about more: Hillary Clinton’s email server, or the price hikes on prescription drugs?

    Duh. The email story, which may have peaked anyway, is basically inside baseball for Hillary-haters; by contrast, rising drug prices hurt the household pocketbook. The email story is abstruse, and distant from the average Joe’s everyday concerns; by contrast, the cost of drugs — which rose 12 percent in 2014 — is downright personal. So kudos to Hillary — and to Bernie Sanders — for taking on an issue that people want to hear about. Isn’t that what we want candidates to do?

    It’s problematic, of course, that any of Hillary’s proposals — which she detailed yesterday — would ever pass a Republican Congress during a Hillary presidency. But unlike the many rivals who are currently spewing rhetorical pollution, at least she’s trying to talk policy substance — by proposing (among other things) to cap out-of-pocket drug expenses at $250 a month; to give Americans a chance to import lower-priced drugs from abroad; to give Medicare and Medicaid officials more power to negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices.

    And her kitchen-table argument — “Nobody in America should have to choose between buying their medicine and paying their rent” — hits the sweet spot of current public opinion. According to the latest survey by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, 72 percent of Americans say that the cost of prescription drugs — even for insured people — is unreasonably high. Only 40 percent view the pharmaceutical companies favorably. And by overwhelming margins, Americans want a tad more socialism in their health coverage: 83 percent want to empower Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices for all seniors, and 76 percent want to cap what the companies charge for serious-illness drugs.

    Kaiser president Drew Altman told the Associated Press last month: “Unlike most things in health policy, there is bipartisan support for almost any action we have polled on that people think will control drug prices. Even Republicans seem to support aggressive action by government.” The poll also says that roughly 25 percent of Americans have problems paying for their drugs, and decide in many instances not to even fill the prescriptions.

    (Wait, what did he just say? Even Republicans seem to support aggressive action by government. He’s talking about grassroots Republican folks — 74 percent of whom told the Kaiser pollster that they support empowering Medicare to negotiate drug prices for seniors; and 70 percent of whom want to cap what the companies charge for serious-illness drugs. Those darn socialists.)

    All told, Altman said, “The public is more focused on consumer issues, like the price of drugs and out-of-pocket costs, than the continuing political battles over the health care law.” Translation: Cracking down on the drug companies is in; repealing Obamacare is out. In the Kaiser poll, only 28 percent still endorse the congressional Republican fantasy.

    So. With the public’s mood in mind, let’s try this little exercise: Call up the transcripts of the first two Republican presidential debates, and do a control-F search for the phrase “prescription drugs.” Count the number of times the phrase was uttered.

    Heck, I did it for you. The number was zero.

    See, this is arguably the GOP’s biggest problem: Stymied by its clown-car discourse — Donald Trump’s personal insults and immigrant bashing, Jeb’s hapless defense of his failed brother, Carly Fiorina’s lies about Planned Parenthood, Mike Huckabee’s rants about the so-called criminalization of Christianity, Ben Carson’s Muslim religious test, Rand Paul’s insistence that refusing to be vaccinated is “freedom” — there’s barely any time to talk about the stuff that everyday people actually care about. Like the rising cost of prescription drugs.

    Quite the contrary, they’re still fixated on repealing Obamacare. They’ve rarely said anything about drug prices, although Carson did address it briefly yesterday. You’ll be shocked to learn that he doesn’t want to intrude on the sovereignty of the drug companies: “Every regulation costs money in terms of goods and services, and who gets hit disproportionately with those costs? People who are already struggling to pay.” It just so happens that Americans pay the highest drug prices in the developed world — on a per capita basis, roughly double the amount elsewhere — precisely because the feds don’t heavily regulate the drug companies … but hey — Carson was merely reciting his party’s ideological mantra.

    Bottom line: If the Republicans keep ceding kitchen-table issues like this to Hillary, they’ll have a tough road in ’16. Good luck trying to change the subject to her emails.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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