Chuck Grassley to scrutinize health mergers, will protect farmers and GOP tax bill

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley said Wednesday he will oppose any attempts by Democrats to roll back the GOP’s 2017 tax reforms and scrutinize whether blockbuster health care mergers are harming consumers.

“When you have less competition, you have higher prices,” Mr. Grassley told reporters in a session on his agenda for the new Congress.

The chairman plans to wield “broad oversight” to ensure Medicare and Medicaid aren’t wasting taxpayer dollars through fraud, waste or abuse, and he will seek a briefing from the Joint Committee on Taxation on Democratic efforts to pry loose President Trump’s tax returns.

He wants to know “what all this involves,” before saying more about his role in the debate. Mr. Trump, who says an audit prevents him from disclosing his returns, broke decades of precedent by refusing to disclose the documents during the campaign.

On Wednesday, two senior House Democrats — Reps. Anna Eshoo of California and Bill Pascrell Jr. of New Jersey — announced legislation that would make that tradition a law.

“The American people expect those who seek or hold the highest office in the land to be open and transparent about their tax returns,” Ms. Eshoo said.

The new bill would require a sitting president or vice president, and the nominees for major political parties during a presidential campaign to release their returns for the previous 10 years.

Mr. Grassley’s earlier-stated skepticism and Mr. Trump’s veto power means neither that legislation nor a similar bill introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, is likely to become law.

Mr. Grassley, Iowa Republican, is replacing Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who retired this month, at the helm of the powerful finance panel.

On trade, he said if Democrats refuse to approve President Trump’s revised deal with Canada and Mexico, he would encourage the president “to pull out of NAFTA” outright, and “hope that they’re smart enough not to let that happen.”

Mr. Grassley said he is eager to make sure U.S. trade secrets and farmers, in particular, are protected amid trade talks with China and NAFTA partners, and he remains concerned about tariffs that were imposed on American agriculture in retaliation for Mr. Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum.

He also swatted away a Bloomberg news service report that Mr. Trump might seek greater tariff authority in his State of the Union Address.

“We ain’t gonna give him any greater authority,” Mr. Grassley said. “We’ve already delegated too much.”

On drug pricing, Mr. Grassley said Medicare’s prescription-drug benefit needs some upgrades but he’s not interested in House Democrats’ push to use government authority to negotiate down the prices of drugs. He said Medicare Part D working pretty well.

“It’s working, don’t mess with it,” he said. “If it ain’t broken, don’t do it.”

Mr. Grassley plans to take a close look at large health care mergers, like the new one between insurer Aetna and CVS pharmacies, and he’s worried that drug companies are engaging in anti-competitive behavior by striking “pay-for-delay” deals to thwart the debut of cheaper alternatives. He’s working with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, on the latter issue.

Mr. Grassley and Ms. Klobuchar introduced a bill Wednesday that would allow the importation of drugs from approved pharmacies across the northern border.

“It’s long past time for Congress to help the millions of Americans who struggle to pay exorbitant prices for medication. Our bill would do exactly that,” Mr. Grassley said.

He’s also working with Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, on the CREATES Act to make sure generic drugmakers get the samples they need to create cheaper versions of brand-name drugs, and he will pick up the late Sen. John McCain’s effort to allow safe importation of drugs from Canada.

Mr. Grassley is working with Health Secretary Alex Azar, however, to refine a White House push to align U.S. prices for doctor-administered drugs under Medicare Part B with those in other developed countries.

“I don’t want foreign countries setting our drug prices,” he said. “Now, what can he do to modify that so that principle is not violated?”

On tax reform, he said he is interested in technical changes to the GOP’s overhaul but will say “absolutely no” to Democratic attempts to raise rates or make other big changes.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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