Just recently, President Trump decided that because the buck stopped with him, the taxpayer’s buck was going to stop going to Tom Price. Permanently. As a result, Price got a taste of the former Apprentice star’s signature catch phrase.
Candidly, even ignoring Price’s abuse of taxpayer dollars, this particular move has been a long time coming. While many members of Trump’s White House staff have made moves to dilute the populist nationalism that propelled him to office, it is hard to think of a cabinet secretary who has more obviously and blatantly implemented the reverse of what his boss ran on.
The reason for this is simple: Trump ran his campaign for President by openly and forcefully rejecting the blindly pro-business talking points of Conservatism, Inc. Nowhere was this more obvious than in his disquisitions on the pharmaceutical industry, which the President (then candidate) accused of “getting away with murder,” and threatened to strong-arm the industry into offering lower drug prices through such blunt tactics as directly negotiating drug prices through Medicare. Even in his early days as President, Trump regularly sent drug stocks tumbling with his repeated threats to force drug prices lower with the force of the Presidential bully pulpit.
Given the political toxicity of America’s skyrocketing drug prices, not to mention the monopolistic, anti-market behaviors that produce them, Trump was clearly onto something both from a political and policy standpoint when he attacked Big Pharma. But watching the actions of Price’s HHS, and its associated agencies, you’d think an industry puppet was President. Granted, not all of the policy produced by this was bad: for example, loosening some of the more restrictive FDA regulations on drugs was both a pro-competition and price-deflating measure. But such actions were an island of sense in an ocean of corporatism.
HHS seemed to make it its mission to exempt pharma from the rule of law, while at the same time cracking down on the industry’s political rivals on spurious grounds. This bias was most obvious in HHS’ approach to enforcement of the 340B drug pricing program. 340B, a policy enacted all the way back under the first President Bush, is a policy with a long conservative pedigree, particularly given that unlike actual price controls, it is purely voluntary. Basically, the root idea of 340B is that if pharmaceutical companies want access to the giant pots of taxpayer dollars that are Medicare Part B and Medicaid, they should also be willing to offer drug prices to hospitals serving vulnerable populations at lower prices than normal. The fact that it’s so old is an unfortunate testament to how long it’s been since Washington actually set conditions on corporate welfare. Pharma, for their part, hate it because it limits their ability to price gouge cancer treatments.
So of course, HHS set out to neuter it. They did this first by attempting to gut the types of hospitals covered by the program, on the theory that those hospitals were abusing the program to pad their own bottom lines – one of the more hilariously ironic talking points employed by the pharmaceutical industry, not to mention one of the most contested.
To be clear, buying into the idea that the spirit and letter of a program shouldn’t be abused for profitability’s sake is a noble one when applied consistently. But HHS did not apply this idea consistently. Because when it came to implementing rules that were designed to ensure that pharmaceutical companies were actually giving out the discounts that 340B requires, the agency balked and kept delaying that very enforcement. In other words, when hospitals “abused” the program, they were to be reined in harshly. But when pharma ignored the law, HHS would turn a blind eye.
From a policy standpoint, this clear double standard was incoherent and baffling. From a political standpoint, it made even less sense, considering that many of the hospitals that most desperately rely on programs like 340B are located right in the heart of Trump country, while the pharmaceutical industry had already proven itself to clearly favor Hillary Clinton over President Trump.
But you know who else they’d clearly favored? Tom Price. Now, he’s gone, and despite pharma trying to buy President Trump the same way, the President has a chance to return to the reformer he was on the campaign trail. Let’s hope that when the next nominee for HHS comes along, he won’t squander the opportunity.
Views expressed in op-eds are not the views of The Daily Caller.