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Sanders, Dems unveil bills to lower drug costs; House Oversight to probe prices

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Sanders, Dems unveil bills to lower drug costs; House Oversight to probe prices

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and a number of Democratic lawmakers said they were tired of their colleagues on Capitol Hill proposing ideas to lower drug costs, only to see those measures go nowhere.

They noted President Donald Trump, who accused drugmakers of "getting away with murder," has repeatedly said he would take action to reduce Americans' drug costs, yet his proposals and threats on Twitter have produced little results.

If Trump and Republicans are serious about lowering prescription drug costs, they should support a new round of bills aimed at doing just that, Sanders said during a Jan. 10 briefing, where he and the cadre of Democrats unveiled their legislation.

Trump met earlier this week with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on what the administration can do to ensure its strategic plan to lower drug costs does not fail — a meeting that came after a number of drugmakers upped the prices of their medicines on Jan. 1.

Azar and biopharmaceutical manufacturers, however, argued those price increases were modest.

House probe coming

But Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the new chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said the Trump administration's efforts have fallen flat.

"I say to the president: 'No more talk. No more tweet. No more commotion, emotion and motion with no results,'" the Maryland Democrat said.

"The American people want action," said Cummings, who revealed later in the day he planned to convene a Jan. 29 hearing of the Oversight Committee on drug prices — making good on a vow he made when Democrats recaptured the House in the November 2018 midterm elections.

Cummings noted that he has been investigating drugmakers' price increases for nearly a decade.

"I've held hearings, written letters and pleaded with my Republican colleagues to address this very important issue," he said.

Freshman Democrat Ilhan Omar of Minnesota said that as an immigrant, she was shocked when she came to the U.S. 23 years ago to learn some Americans were having to make choices between buying food for their families or paying for their prescription medicines and that some people were filing for bankruptcy because of mounting medical bills.

The new legislation, she said, is intended to change those situations and ensure Americans have access to medicines.

Negotiating, importing, price indexing

One of the bills Sanders and the Democrats introduced would allow the government's Medicare Part D prescription drug program for seniors and disabled Americans to negotiate prices directly with biopharmaceutical makers. A second bill would let Americans import cheaper medicines from Canada and other industrialized nations.

A third measure, initially introduced late last year by Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., would require the HHS secretary to employ an international price indexing system to set prices based on what Canada, the UK, France, Germany and Japan pay for their medicines.

If brand-name drugmakers refused to lower drug prices to the median of those five countries, HHS would be required to approve cheaper generic versions of those medicines, regardless of any patents or market exclusivity protections that are in place.

The Trump administration is considering testing an international price indexing model of its own, though the idea has received a lot of negative feedback, particularly from the drug industry.

Sanders and the Democrats urged their Republican colleagues to join them in passing the three bills.

"How many Americans have to get sick, how many Americans have to die before Congress is prepared to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry?" Sanders asked.

With a possible exception of Wall Street, the biopharmaceutical industry is the "most powerful political force in this country," the Vermont senator said.

He noted the sector has spent over $4 billion in lobbying and campaign contributions over the past 20 years, hiring more than 1,400 lobbyists in that time — "often formal leaders of our two major parties to fight for their profits."

Big pharma companies also are not putting the majority of their profits back into research and development, Khanna said.

He noted that Pfizer Inc. put $139 billion into stock buybacks over the last decade, versus $80 billion for R&D.

Khanna said 63% of new drugs are invented or manufactured by start-up companies.

Unfortunately, he said, the venture capitalists in his California district who fund those companies are more interested in how many patients their medicines will treat — the financial payload — rather than the diseases the products may treat or cure.

Ending pay-for-delay deals

Meanwhile, Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., also reintroduced their legislation that seeks to end so-called pay-for-delay deals, in which branded companies pay makers of cheaper versions of medicines under patent settlement agreements to keep their products off the U.S. market for a certain period.

The deals used to involve only delaying generic entrance, but with more biosimilar approvals, there also is a growing trend of pay-for-delay deals involving those medicines, Grassley and Klobuchar noted.

Biosimilars are intended to be lower-cost versions of biologic therapies — drugs derived from natural sources such as micro-organisms or plant or animal cells.

Pay-for-delay deals harm competition and leave all Americans to pay the price, Grassley said in a Jan. 10 statement.

Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has repeatedly called on drugmakers to "end the shenanigans" of pay-for-delay deals and other tactics that thwart competition.