By Tim Reid

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris unveiled a plan on Tuesday to crack down on pharmaceutical companies which overcharge for prescription drugs, making her the latest 2020 White House candidate to seize on the issue.

Harris, a U.S. senator from California, said her proposal would dramatically lower drug costs by allowing the federal government to set fair prices for what companies can charge and forcing them to pay rebates to consumers for medicines sold at artificially high rates.

“As President, I will not stand idly by as Americans pay thousands of dollars for prescription drugs while big pharmaceutical companies rake in massive profits,” Harris said in a statement ahead of speaking about the plan at a candidate forum in Iowa, the first state to hold a nominating contest.

“This plan puts people over profit by forcing these companies to reduce prices for consumers and holding them accountable when they gouge Americans.”

With the high cost of drugs and rising healthcare rates a pressing issue for voters, debate over the future of the U.S. healthcare system has become a focal point of the Democratic nominating contest.

Democrats exploited the issue in last year’s midterm congressional elections and believe it helped them regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Republican Party.

Harris’ proposal follows plans by several of her Democratic rivals to lower drug costs, an issue they are keen to exploit after Republican President Donald Trump backed down this month from a policy aimed at getting drug companies to lower costs.

Harris was to announce her plan at one of the presidential candidate forums being held across Iowa this week by the AARP, an influential nonprofit organization that helps older Americans.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads the more than 20 candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, touted a plan at a forum on Monday that would repeal the law that prohibits Medicare from negotiating lower prices with drug companies.

Harris has been gaining ground on Biden in opinion polls after she delivered a strong performance at the first Democratic debate last month.

She said if elected president, she would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to set a fair price for any prescription drug that is sold for a lower price in comparable countries, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan.

A drug’s fair price would be no higher than 100 percent of the average price for that drug in other comparable countries.

In addition, all drug company profits made from selling a drug above the fair price would be taxed at 100 percent. Those taxed profits would be sent back to consumers in the form of rebates.

Drug companies found to be charging artificially high prices would receive a warning letter demanding they offer a price reduction within 30 days. Harris would also seek to force companies to import lower-cost alternatives and investigate companies overcharging consumers for prescription drugs.

(Reporting by Tim Reid; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)