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Trump administration's drug pricing czar O'Brien to soon exit

John O'Brien, the Trump administration's top official on drug pricing reform, plans to soon exit his role at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the head of the agency said.

O'Brien plans to depart HHS on Aug. 22, an agency spokeswoman told S&P Global Market Intelligence. He took the role in December 2018 after his predecessor, Daniel Best, died a month earlier.

O'Brien's departure comes as President Donald Trump is trying to convince U.S. voters to keep him in office long enough to make headway on his vows to lower drug prices — an effort that has recently run into a number of roadblocks.

On July 8, a federal judge blocked the administration's effort to force drug companies to disclose the list prices of their medicines in television commercials.

Days later, the administration abandoned its proposal to ban rebates paid by drug manufacturers to middlemen.

Those two setbacks were a blow to Trump's promise that his forthcoming healthcare plan — expected to be unveiled in September — would lower Americans' costs.

Trump's most recent pledge to lower drug prices, which involves two complicated ideas that would permit medicines from foreign nations to be imported into the U.S., has also been met skepticism.

A number of Trump's Democratic rivals seeking to capture the White House have supported drug importation, though most Republicans have rejected the idea. Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, however, has partnered with Democrats on importation legislation, though he has raised some safety concerns about Trump's proposals, which could take years to implement.

Paying it forward

Prior to becoming Trump's drug czar, O'Brien had served as an adviser to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and deputy assistant secretary for health policy at the agency.

Before joining HHS in 2017, O'Brien was vice president of public policy at CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

O'Brien does not have any immediate plans after he departs HHS, but told S&P Global Market Intelligence in a statement that he would like to "teach and mentor the next generation of health policy leaders, to pay forward what so many teachers, mentors, and employers have done for me, and contribute to the future of the drug pricing debate."

Chip Davis, president and CEO of the Association for Accessible Medicines, which lobbies on behalf of the generic drug industry, called O'Brien a "tireless advocate" for patients throughout his entire tenure with the Trump administration.

In an Aug. 12 statement, Davis praised O'Brien for using his "experience, intellect and passion to forge policies that recognize the critical importance" of generics and biosimilar medicines — lower cost versions of biologic therapies — in reducing Americans' out-of-pocket costs.

"John has diligently kept access to these important medicines as a primary focus of the administration's prescription drug policies," Davis said.

John Brooks, principal deputy director at HHS' Center for Medicare, will step in to fill the drug pricing role, while continuing in his current position.