The US Senate has blocked legislation that would let the government negotiate Medicare drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, although supporters of the bill have said they will continue the fight.

In a 55-42 procedural vote, senate majority leader Harry Reid was five votes short of the 60 needed to end a Republican filibuster and move to a vote on the bill.

Democrats say that allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices is common sense, and could lead to more affordable drugs for Medicare beneficiaries and lower costs for taxpayers. The intention, they maintain, is to allow the government to take over negotiations for some, but not all, drugs.

“This bill does not take over the role of the private plans,” commented Senator Ron Wyden. “The question is, should we make it possible for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to complement the role, to go beyond it and say that there are some circumstances where we should negotiate?”

A flawed bill?

Opponents, on the other hand, argue the bill is flawed and does nothing to provide seniors with more benefits at less cost. “I've never seen the government take a programme from the private sector and deliver it more efficiently and at a lower cost,” said Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell after the vote.

And a White House spokesperson maintained the “right decision” had been made, adding, “if a bill such as the one that they were contemplating today were to make its way to the president's desk, he would veto it.”

But Democrats have said they will continue to fight for the bill and will try again. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said supporters of the bill had about 58 votes in favor of allowing the government to negotiate drug prices, and suggested the additional three votes would come from Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota, who has been in hospital since mid-December for a brain hemorrhage; Harry Reid, who switched his vote at the end so that he could bring the bill up again; and Republican John McCain of Arizona. Two or three other Republicans are also thought to be possible future supporters.