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Here in Washington, the conversation about politics is often framed as a spectrum, a straight line with poles at the end that are hard-wired opposites. Team Blue to the left and Team Red to the right. But in reality, the chatter might more accurately be framed as a loop, with the far ends bending back on themselves like a lasso. Eventually, the far-right voices and the far-left voices meet at the weird spot where Rand Paul supporters find common ground with The Squad.
It’s often at the knot between the two ends of that scale that we find some of the loudest voices on any given issue: foreign aid, vaccine mandates, the surveillance state. Right now, as Congress is considering a massive spending package on roads and bridges, pre-K and paid family leave, lawmakers have been debating a point on which political opponents agree: drug prices are too high.
Drug pricing is one of those rare sweet spots where it seems everyone in Washington can agree that consumers are getting a raw deal. The motives behind that sentiment differ, of course: liberals want to make medical care more accessible and to curb the power of big pharma, and conservatives see drug prices divorced from pure capitalism. But everyone can rally around the end goal. No one gets excited to tuck away pennies on the paycheck to control acid reflux or prevent migraines.
The package under consideration tries to fix drug costs by ending the ban on feds negotiating with pharmaceutical companies. In a deal hashed out among Democrats, Medicare would be allowed to negotiate directly with drug companies on the prices of the 10 most expensive drugs by 2025. That number would double to 20 drugs three years later. Only established drugs that have been on the market at least nine years in most cases would be eligible, giving pharmaceutical companies almost a decade of unrestricted profitability. (Start-up biotech companies would be exempted from the process under the guise of giving newcomer innovators a leg-up.)
For individuals on private insurance, their drug costs would be tied to inflation, meaning no spiking costs if a drug becomes popular. Seniors, meanwhile, would have a $2,000 cap on what they’d be responsible for at the pharmacy.
Democrats have been working for years to make drug companies the enemy. In the current environment of woke capitalism, they’re an easy target for lawmakers in Washington to come after. Drugs, after all, aren’t luxury goods. They’re necessary. And for the government to give them a pass in ways few other industries enjoy, that just seems wrong to the far-left wing of the Democratic Party that has flirted with elements of socialism.
It turns out, maybe that messaging isn’t working. New polling, provided exclusively to TIME from centrist think tank Third Way, suggests the way the conversation is framed matters more than you’d think. In a poll of 1,000 likely voters in September, costs were their biggest hangup about the healthcare system, regardless of political identity. Almost 40% of respondents cited healthcare costs as the biggest flaw in the system.
What didn’t seem to bother people much? Fairness. That’s right. The spot where the far-right and the far-left tines of the political fork meet is usually seen as an objection to a system rigged against the consumers. But a meager 18% of respondents to the Third Way poll say profits were what’s wrong with the system. Grievance isn’t the most grievous of problems.
And if you dig a little deeper, you find other reasons Democrats might want to reconsider how they talk about drug prices in the twin infrastructure plans parked in Congress. In fact, there’s a 12-point gap in two competing reasons to address healthcare; lowering costs draws the support of 72% of respondents while making things fair wins backing from 60%.
“This is kitchen table economics and it’s not a morality play,” says Jim Kessler, a co-founder of Third Way and its policy chief who is advising the Hill on messaging on the twin bills. “Those are winning messages, especially on healthcare. You’re going to keep the exact same system, but you’re going to get some help with costs.”
In other words, the chatter in the purple knot might feel most fulsome when talking about justice and weeding out the super-rich exploiters of capitalism. But, really, people just want to hold onto their cash. Protections against healthcare bankruptcy are super popular, suggesting the fear of losing everything to a hospital visit is real. Capitalism may well be exploitative but it’s tough to argue that a few extra bucks in the bank can make falling asleep easier at the end of the day.
So as Congress gets ready to move forward with drug prices in its infrastructure talks, lawmakers can find some comfort that the whole of the political spectrum agrees costs need to come down. And they don’t really care if it’s done in a fair way — as long as their savings doesn’t take a hit every 90 days.
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