U.S. Senate Democrats late Tuesday afternoon announced their committee assignments for the 117th Congress. Senate Republicans had not yet announced their committee members as of this morning. However, Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) will be the ranking Republican on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Sen. Michael Crapo (Idaho) will be the lead GOP lawmaker on Finance, and Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.) will be the ranking Republican on Appropriations.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) traded her place on HELP for the Democratic seat that was added to the coveted Finance Committee for this session of Congress. The HELP Committee also picked up an extra Democratic seat, which with Warren’s departure created two vacancies. Senate freshmen Ben Ray Lujan (N.M.) and John Hickenlooper (Colo.) are the two new Democrats on the HELP panel.
With Democrats now in control of the Senate, Patty Murray (Wash.) takes over as HELP chair and Ron Wyden (Ore.) as Finance chair. Both are considered defenders of the 340B program.
The HELP Committee has primary jurisdiction over the 340B program. The Finance Committee has jurisdiction over Medicare and Medicaid. Both committees are expected to hold hearings and vote on President Biden’s nomination of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to be Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). Those hearings had not yet been scheduled at the time of publication.
Warren, a champion of the Democrats’ progressive wing, was elected to the Senate in 2012. She ran for president in 2020, and for a while in late 2019 was considered the favorite to win her party’s nomination. She withdrew from the race in March 2020 after Biden’s big wins in the Super Tuesday primaries. Together with Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), Warren is Co-Vice Chair of Senate Democratic Conference, ranking the pair fourth in the Senate’s Democratic leadership.
Warren is considered a friend of 340B health care providers and foe of drug manufacturers.
In September, she was one of 28 senators who signed a bipartisan letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar urging HHS to take action against drug manufacturers that have been denying or placing conditions on 340B pricing on drugs dispensed by contract pharmacies.
During a HELP Committee oversight hearing on 340B in 2018, Warren stood out for her sharp questioning of U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) and HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) witnesses.
“In order for the 340B program to work, the ceiling price calculations need to be done correctly, and there need to be consequences when drug companies break the law and deliberately overcharge for these drugs,” Warren said. “When it comes to these drug companies, if no one can check their work, they could cheat, charge more for drugs, and no one could catch them when they break the law. There is just no way to catch them on this.”
“No one should be above the law, and that includes giant drug companies that are raking in profits while complaining about a program that helps out our most vulnerable patients,” she said.
Lujan, one of the HELP committee’s two new Democrats, was elected to the Senate in November. He served in the U.S. House since 2009 and, upon leaving, was the House’s fourth-highest ranking Democrat. During the last Congress, Lujan served on the Energy and Commerce Committee and its Health subcommittee. He was one of more than 100 House Democrats who signed a September letter to HHS Secretary Azar asking HHS to rescind or not implement President Trump’s executive order requiring 340B health centers to charge low-income, uninsured, or underinsured patients no more than 340B ceiling price for insulin or injectable epinephrine.
Hickenlooper, the HELP committee’s other new Democrat, also was elected to the Senate in November. He previously served as Mayor of Denver (2003-2011) and Governor of Colorado (2011-2019). As governor, Hickenlooper expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, drastically reducing Colorado’s uninsured rate. During his campaign for Senate, Hickenlooper called for cutting prescription drug costs by increasing drug pricing transparency and accountability, drug importation from Mexico and Canada, and letting Medicare negotiate cheaper drug prices.
Democrats also have one more seat on the Appropriations Committee than they did in the last Congress. Sen. Martin Heinrich (N.M.) is the new Democrat on that panel. He was elected to the Senate in 2012 and, before that, to the House in 2008. Heinrich supports drug importation from Canada and other nations with comparable drug safety standards, and letting Medicare negotiate lower drug prices to cut costs for Part D beneficiaries.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) takes over as Appropriations chair. Leahy (as did HELP chair Murray and Finance chair Wyden) signed a Sept. 15 letter from 22 Senate Democrats to Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America President and CEO Stephen Ubl calling on drug manufacturers to stop denying or imposing conditions on 340B pricing on drugs dispensed through contract pharmacies.