Poison pill: How the Trump brand turned toxic for seniors struggling to afford prescription drugs

Donald Trump with CMS Administrator Seema Verma.

Donald Trump's scheme to raid the Medicare Trust fund - which is scheduled to be depleted in six years - to the tune of $8 billion to bribe seniors with the pre-election promise of a 'Trump card' is collapsing after Trump rejected a $150 billion+ offer from the pharmaceutical industry to help seniors cover prescription drug prices that lacked sufficient Trump branding.

According to a report in the New York Times last month, the much-despised big pharma was prepared to spend $150 billion to reduce out-of-pocket drug costs for seniors on Medicare, and even to pick up most of their prescription drug copayments.

Until Donald Trump insisted on branding the program for political purposes. Trump's Chief of Staff Mark Meadows - who would not talk to reporters with his face-mask on - insisted that the drugmakers pay for $100 cash cards (dubbed 'Trump cards') to be mailed to seniors in Donald Trump's name, and more importantly that it be done before November. The White House wouldn't officially say it was to help Trump's sagging poll numbers with seniors, but it was to help Trump's sagging poll numbers with seniors.

Unwilling to be dragged into electioneering through what would essentially be a Trump-branded bribe to seniors, pharma executives backed off.

When the deal fell apart, Donald Trump rushed to create another form of these 'Trump cards' - this time by raiding the Medicare Trust fund. On September 24, when Trump abruptly announced $200 drug discount cards for Medicare Part D recipients, his administration did not know how they would do so legally, but since then they have resorted to an authority to launch pilot programs under Medicare. Seema Verma, the Trump-appointed administrator for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as well as other Trump loyalists, billed it as a trial program to see whether prescription adherence improves with drug discount cards. It's not a well crafted trial, since you cannot tell whether behavior changes as a result of an incentive without a control group who don't get the incentive - i.e. a group of seniors who wouldn't get the discount cards - something Trump was unwilling to do. Originally, they had planned to send letters to millions of seniors last week - conveniently in the smack middle of the election - but would not be sending the actual cards until later in the year.

The gimmick drew fire from top Democrats who, in letters to the HHS as well as the Government Accountability Office (GAO), called for an expedited review to determine its legality and propriety.

But even in the heavily politicized Trump administration, the attempt to use Trump's government office to crassly bribe seniors with the promise of taxpayer money so close to an election set off alarm bells . The General Counsel of the Department of Health and Human Services, a Trump appointee, has warned in an internal memo that the scheme appears to violate election law, and that HHS should seek review and guidance from the public integrity division of the Department of Justice before proceeding further. Although the White House insists the discount cards themselves would not have Trump's name etched on them, the letters of announcement - which have the sole purpose of marketing - certainly will. Inconveniently for Donald Trump, this has likely delayed the process of sending out the bribe letter until after the election, defeating its entire purpose.

Of course, all that Donald Trump cares about is getting those letters out so seniors - who are abandoning him in droves - come back to his fold, enticed by a $200 taxpayer-funded bribe, rather than noticing that Trump is dead set on eliminating Social Security, undermining Medicare, and killing seniors with COVID. All he cares about is a letter with his name on it stating the amount of the bribe.

But what seniors will learn from this story is that Trump dismissed $150 billion in assistance for their prescription drugs for a hasty $8 billion illegal gimmick because his personal branding and political future is far more important to him than actually helping anyone.

Much like with everything else, the poison pill standing between seniors and the prescription drugs they need is Donald Trump himself.

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