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Drug-pricing policies find new momentum as ‘a 2020 thing’


This flurry of proposed lawmaking could add momentum to one of the few policy areas in which conventional Washington wisdom suggests House Democrats, Senate Republicans, and the White House may be able to find common ground.

“Everything is up in the air and anything is possible,” said Walid Gellad, MD, codirector of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh. “There are things that can happen that maybe weren’t going to happen before.”

And there’s political pressure. Polls consistently suggest voters have a strong appetite for action. As a candidate, President Trump vowed to make drug prices a top priority. In recent months, the administration has taken steps in this direction, like testing changes to Medicare that might reduce out-of-pocket drug costs. But Congress has been relatively quiet, especially when it comes to challenging the pharmaceutical industry, which remains one of Capitol Hill’s most potent lobbying forces.

One aspect of prescription drug pricing that could see bipartisan action is insulin prices, which have skyrocketed, stoking widespread outcry, and could be a target for bipartisan work. Ms. Warren’s legislation singles out the drug as one the government could produce, and Mr. Cummings has already called in major insulin manufacturers for a drug-pricing hearing later this month. In addition, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, has listed prescription drug pricing as a high priority for her panel. As cochair of the Congressional Diabetes Caucus, Ms. DeGette worked with Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) to produce a report on the high cost of insulin.

To be sure, some of the concepts, such as drug importation and bolstering development of generic drugs, have been around a long time. But some of the legislation at hand suggests a new kind of thinking.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has labeled drug pricing a top priority, and the pharmaceutical industry has been bracing for a fight with the new Democratic majority.

Meanwhile, in the GOP-controlled Senate, two powerful lawmakers – Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Mr. Grassley – have indicated they want to use their influence to tackle the issue. Mr. Alexander, who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has said cutting health care costs, including drug prices, will be high on his panel’s to-do list this Congress. Mr. Grassley runs the Finance Committee, which oversees pricing issues for Medicare and Medicaid.

“The solution to high drug prices is not just having the government spending more money. ... You need to look at prices,” Dr. Gellad said. “These proposals deal with price. They all directly affect price.”

Given the drug industry’s full-throated opposition to virtually any pricing legislation, Ms. Sachs said, “it is not at all surprising to me to see the Democrats start exploring some of these more radical proposals.”

Still, though, Senate staffers almost uniformly argued that the drug-pricing issue requires more than one single piece of legislation.

For instance, the price-gouging penalty spearheaded by Mr. Blumenthal doesn’t stop drugs from having high initial list prices. Letting Medicare negotiate doesn’t mean people covered by other plans will necessarily see the same savings. Empowering the government to produce competing drugs doesn’t promise to keep prices down long term and doesn’t guarantee that patients will see those savings.

“We need to use every tool available to bring down drug prices and improve competition,” said an aide in Ms. Warren’s office.

KHN’s coverage of prescription drug development, costs and pricing is supported in part by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


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