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Drug prices back in Senate's bull's-eye; health panel resumes hearings

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Drug prices back in Senate's bull's-eye; health panel resumes hearings

After the debate over healthcare reform derailed a Senate effort to probe the rising costs of prescription drugs, the head of the chamber's health committee on Oct. 5 signaled that he was ready to get back on track.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, scheduled a hearing for Oct. 17 to examine drug costs where representatives from some of the largest lobbying groups affiliated with the biopharmaceutical sector — either manufacturing, payment, distribution or dispensing — will testify.

The hearing is the second in what was supposed to be a series of three sessions.

Alexander convened the first hearing on the drug pricing matter in June, but sidelined the effort after he said Democrats were too focused at that time on trying to upend the Republicans' attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act — a law the party has so far failed to dismantle.

The Tennessee lawmaker has been working with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the committee's ranking member, on short-term fixes for the ACA — an effort that was placed on hold in September by Senate leaders, but has since resumed. He said during a Sept. 14 Capitol Hill session that he was eager to get back to probing healthcare cost issues.

"We've spent too much time on insurance and not enough time on the costs of healthcare," Alexander said. "We need to get into the other issues."

Lacking action

Many in Congress have promised for years to take on the issue of drug prices, but few hearings have been held and very little has been done legislatively.

President Donald Trump made lowering drug costs a key plank of his 2016 campaign — vowing he would support efforts to give the Medicare program the authority to negotiate with industry on the prices of medicines.

Just before taking office, Trump said Jan. 11 that the industry was "getting away with murder."

Since taking office, though, Trump has been more reserved in his remarks about the biopharmaceutical industry — often inviting industry leaders to the White House — although still promising lawmakers he would take action on costs.

The White House had been working on an executive order, the draft details of which have leaked out from time to time. But Trump has yet to unveil any such order.

For the time being, he appears to have left the matter of lowering drug costs up to his head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb, who has taken some actions involving generics and lower-cost versions of complex medicines and has vowed to roll out other measures.

Testifying

Slated to testify at the Oct. 17 hearing is Lori Reilly, executive vice president of policy, research and membership at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

The committee will not be hearing from the head of the biopharmaceutical lobbying group, Stephen Ubl.

Also invited to speak at the hearing is Chip Davis, president and CEO of the Association for Accessible Medicines, which represents makers of small-molecule generic medicines and biosimilars, which are intended to be lower-cost versions of biologics — large molecules derived from natural sources, such as microorganisms or plant or animal cells.

In addition, the Senate panel is expected to hear from Elizabeth Gallenagh, senior vice president of government affairs and general counsel at the Healthcare Distribution Alliance; Mark Merritt, president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association; and Thomas Menighan, executive director and CEO of the American Pharmacists Association.