AUBURN — President Joe Biden focused on ever-rising health care and prescription drug costs as a driver of booming inflation during a speech in Auburn on Friday, calling for bolder action to limit drug prices.
Biden called for a $35 monthly cap on the cost of insulin; for a new tax on drug companies that charge exorbitant rates; for Medicare to be able to negotiate the cost of prescription drugs; and for a $2,000 annual limit on how much older adults on Medicare pay for prescriptions.
“Prescription drugs are outrageously expensive,” Biden said near the end of the 35-minute speech.
Biden spoke softly during much of his remarks as he touched on other topics, including the Affordable Care Act, community colleges and the cost of child care. But he raised his voice forcefully as he contrasted drug companies with their customers.
“Imagine what it’s like if you don’t have insurance and you don’t have the cash, to look at your child knowing what they need, and knowing there’s not a damn thing you can do about it,” Biden said. “You’re deprived of your dignity, how do you look at your child?
“There’s no excuse, none. We’re not asking the drug companies to do anything they can’t afford,” he said.
Biden spoke in the student union at Green River College, a community college with about 14,000 students about half an hour south of Seattle. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, Rep. Kim Schrier and Gov. Jay Inslee — all Democrats — spoke briefly before Biden.
The college event followed a morning speech marking Earth Day before a small group of about 70 invited guests at Seattle’s Seward Park, where the president signed an executive order aimed at protecting old-growth forests and took jabs at Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, for failing to take climate change seriously.
The visit to the Seattle area was the first of Biden’s presidency and came with an eye to the midterm elections, as Democrats seek to convince inflation-weary voters that they’re taking actions to bring relief from rising costs.
After a Thursday appearance in Portland, Biden spent the night in Seattle, where some downtown streets were blocked off and two small homeless encampments were cleared by police near the hotel where the president was staying.
In Auburn, Biden was introduced by Elisa Graceffo and Juliana Graceffo, a mother and daughter from Sammamish who have helped raise nearly $500,000 for diabetes research since Juliana was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 14 years ago.
Juliana talked about how she used to need up to a dozen injections a day, but now she has a monitor that wirelessly communicates with an insulin pump, to continuously control her blood sugar.
But those devices still need the raw material, insulin, and its costs have risen from about $40 a vial to around $300.
“We have seen nothing but increase after increase in the costs of insulin,” Juliana said. “We need something to change.”
The Washington Legislature this year passed a $35 monthly limit on out-of-pocket costs for insulin for people on state-funded insurance plans, like public servants and those on some Medicaid plans. The new cap, which takes effect in 2023, passed with broad bipartisan support.
But most of what Biden proposes needs congressional approval, currently a high bar with the Senate Democratic-controlled but evenly divided, and Republicans all but dead-set on blocking Biden’s agenda.
He hinted at the hurdles ahead as he touted the increased Child Tax Credit that passed last year as part of his massive COVID relief measure. That one-year boost cut child poverty by more than 25%, according to a Columbia University study, but it has since expired and not been renewed.
“We lack one Democrat and 50 Republicans from keeping it from passing this time around,” Biden said.
Biden spoke in front of a sign that said “Lowering costs for American families,” at a time when inflation has been rising faster than at any time in 40 years.
Republicans took aim at Biden’s visit, saying it wouldn’t help vulnerable Democrats like Schrier in the looming midterms.
In a call with reporters Friday, Caleb Heimlich, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, blamed Biden for inflation “burdening Washington families, American families, for the better part of the last year.”
Some demonstrators outside the Auburn event chanted insults at Biden and waved a banner saying “Trump won.”
Among those inside the college for the rare presidential appearance was Ramon Santiago, 27, of Tacoma, who is in his third year at Green River, pursuing a nursing degree. Santiago wanted to hear what Biden could do to make college more affordable, especially for those going into nursing.
“It’s definitely something that’s daunting for a lot of people,” Santiago said. Biden did note a boost in Pell Grant funding that passed last year, but the measures he touted Friday were largely about drug prices.
Biden warned that it “would be hard for a while” as the war in Ukraine continues to contribute to high gas prices. He said drug companies that increase prices faster than the rate of inflation should “pay a steep tax.”
Electric and water utilities can’t raise prices at will, Biden said, while questioning why drug companies are able to do so.
And he called for Medicare to be able to negotiate drug prices, something that Democrats have long pushed for, but never successfully.
Medicare, Biden said, negotiates every price it pays — for doctors, for hospitals, for procedures and surgeries — except for prescription drugs.
He talked about a drug for leukemia that costs $6,000 a month in France but $14,000 a month here.
“The same exact drug, the same exact company, same distribution,” Biden said. “It’s unconscionable.”
Earlier, at Seward Park in Seattle, Biden gave a wide-ranging speech about his administration’s efforts to transition all facets of the economy to clean energy — including even the military.
“I’m going to start the process where every vehicle in the United States military — every vehicle is going to be climate friendly,” Biden said during the outside talk in the picturesque park at a podium set up among blossoming cherry trees.
He noted the recently passed $1 trillion infrastructure law would pay for 500,000 electric-car charging stations nationwide and invest $39 billion in public transit.
Biden said the infrastructure bill also provides for workers losing jobs in the fossil fuel industry, paying them to work on clean-energy projects.
“We’ve provided alternatives. They are manufacturing and installing solar panels where they once dug for coal,” he said.
Biden also threw jabs at Republicans he characterized as in the thrall of Trump.
He briefly mentioned new revelations about House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who in a taped conversation shortly after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot suggested Trump should resign, only to quickly fall back in line with the ex-president.
“This is the MAGA party now,” Biden said. “These guys are a different breed of cat. They’re not like what I served with for so many years.”
Outside Seward Park, some demonstrators waved signs trying to catch Biden’s attention as the presidential motorcade rolled past. Some called for swifter approval of a COVID-19 vaccine for children under 5.
Others demanded Biden move more aggressively on climate issues.
Eric Ross, a Seattle resident, held a sign quoting Biden’s own comments that climate change is an “existential threat” to humanity.
“He needs to declare a climate emergency and treat the climate crisis for what it is — a crisis,” said Ross, who was disappointed in the Biden administration for recently resuming leasing of federal lands for oil and gas drilling.