Biden pledges to veto any effort to raise drug prices

President Joe Biden

Prescription drug prices in the United States weren't the top priority for President Joseph Biden in his second State of the Union address, which put the economy and jobs front and centre, but the president certainly wasn't shy when it came time to talk about the drug prices, which he framed as primarily an issue of pharmaceutical company greed.

"We pay more for prescription drugs than any other nation on earth," Biden said. "Insulin’s been around for more than a hundred years. The guy who invented it didn’t even patent it because he wanted everyone to benefit from it. It costs the drug companies roughly $10 a vial to make that insulin. Throw in packaging you might get that up to $13. But big pharma has been charging people up to $400 a month, making record profits. Not anymore."

Biden pointed to the recent Inflation Reduction Act, which allows Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and caps insulin at $35 a month for Medicare beneficiaries. He suggested that legislation didn't go far enough.

"There are millions of other Americans who are not on Medicare who need insulin to stay alive," he said. "Let’s finish the job this time. Let’s cap the cost for insulin for everyone at $35."

Despite Biden's assurances that "big pharma’s still going to do very well", pharma industry groups like PhRMA have been saying the opposite, arguing that the "negotiation" in the bill amounts to an ultimatum that will cripple the industry.

"The president signed into law a partisan set of policies that will lead to fewer new treatments and doesn't do nearly enough to address the real affordability problems facing patients at the pharmacy," said PhRMA president and CEO Stephen Ubl in response to the address.

"We will explore every opportunity to mitigate the harmful impacts from the unprecedented government price-setting system being put in place by this law," he added. "We will continue to advocate for policies that give patients better and more affordable access to lifesaving treatments and for a system that supports innovation."

Biden argued in the speech that reducing drug prices for Medicare would not only help seniors, but it would also reduce the deficit. And he warned Republicans against trying to repeal the act.

"Make no mistake. If you try anything to raise the cost of prescription drugs, I will veto it," he said.

Medicare, mental health, and COVID-19

Biden spoke about healthcare several more times throughout the speech he pledged to protect Social Security and Medicare from cuts, a position the Republicans in the chamber seemed to violently disagree with, leading to an odd moment of back and forth between the president and his audience as they balked at the suggestion that those cuts were on the table.

The president talked about fentanyl and called for "a major surge to stop fentanyl production, sale, and trafficking". He also mentioned the youth mental health crisis, pivoting the former to a call for more regulation on big tech, which he accused of "running an experiment on our children for profit." He called for congressional protections for abortion rights.

And he addressed COVID-19.

"While the virus is not gone, thanks to the resilience of the American people, we have broken COVID’s grip on us," the president said. "COVID deaths are down nearly 90%. We’ve saved millions of lives and opened our country back up. And soon we’ll end the public health emergency. But we will remember the toll and pain that will never go away for so many. More than one million Americans have lost their lives to COVID. Families grieving. Children orphaned. Empty chairs at the dining room table. We remember them, and we remain vigilant. We still need to monitor dozens of variants and support new vaccines and treatments. So, Congress needs to fund these efforts and keep America safe."

The Cancer Moonshot

Finally, Biden's penultimate talking point was the Cancer Moonshot, a project that's been personal for him and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden since they lost the president's son, Beau, to glioblastoma in 2015.

"Last year, Jill and I re-ignited the Cancer Moonshot that President Obama asked me to lead in our Administration," Biden said. "Our goal is to cut the cancer death rate by at least 50% over the next 25 years, turn more cancers from death sentences into treatable diseases, and provide more support for patients and families."

Biden spotlighted a family whose four-year-old daughter has beaten the odds against a rare kidney cancer, using their story to emphasise the importance of the Moonshot.

"For the lives we can save and for the lives we have lost, let this be a truly American moment that rallies the country and the world together and proves that we can do big things," Biden said. "Twenty years ago, under the leadership of President Bush and countless advocates and champions, we undertook a bipartisan effort through PEPFAR to transform the global fight against HIV/AIDS. It’s been a huge success. I believe we can do the same with cancer. Let’s end cancer as we know it and cure some cancers once and for all."