The drug industry was warned today by a key House Republican that if it doesn't act to bring down the cost of prescription drugs, Congress will. And the industry might not like what happens.
House Health Subcommittee Chairman Michael C. Burgess (R-TX) cited a new report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine that said drug prices had reached "the tipping point" for the American public, prompting this comment by Burgess:
“If we’re not moving toward some solutions to this problem, then there likely will be some type of action, perhaps not by this subcommittee this year, perhaps not by this subcommittee next year, but there will be action taken.”
The hearing was the first to be held by the House of Representatives on the issue since public concern began to build some two years ago about the skyrocketing prices of prescription drugs that in many cases have risen to unconscionable and clearly unnecessarily high levels. The Senate has held three such hearings, including one yesterday when representatives of the National Academies testified.
Also appearing yesterday were representatives of drug companies, insurers, distributors, hospitals, doctors, pharmacists and patients. There was plenty of finger pointing and blame gaming, especially between the drug companies and pharmacy benefit managers who negotiate prices between manufacturers and health plans.
“I can’t figure out for the life of me why insurance companies can’t deal directly with the manufacturers and the pharmacists, and what value that you’re adding,” Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-VA told the benefit managers. “We have to have some transparency so the average citizen of the United States understands why it is that you all are up here pointing fingers at one another?”
From the tone of the questioning, it appeared that GOP lawmakers, who control Congress, may be waiting for the drug industry to do something themselves to resolve what has become a crisis for many American families. Good luck with that.
President Trump's choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alexander Azar, has said he will make bringing drug prices down a high priority. Only problem is that Azar is a former Eli Lilly & Co. senior executive, so many, particularly Democrats, question whether that will really happen.
In its report, the National Academies' independent advisory group's report lists dozens of suggestions for what the feds could do. It recommended major changes in the pricing, sale and promotion of prescription drugs to make pharmaceuticals more affordable without discouraging development of new medicines.
The report also embraced a proposal long supported by Democrats, and backed by Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, to give the feds the power to negotiate drug prices with manufacturers. The idea is opposed by congressional Republicans.
In addition, the report said drug companies should not be allowed to take tax deductions for drug advertising aimed at consumers and should set annual limits on out-of-pocket drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries.
“Consumer access to effective and affordable medicines is an imperative for public health, social equity and economic development,” said the panel of 17 experts. “However, this imperative is not being adequately served by the biopharmaceutical sector today.”
Perhaps the looming 2018 Congressional elections will provide some encouragement to lawmakers of both parties to find a solution. But keep in mind, we're talking about an industry with exceedingly deep pockets and highly skilled lobbyists, and about a Congress that is about to demonstrate, through its tax reform bill, where it stands when it comes to representing the average American as compared to big business.