Capitol Hill Sees a Burst of Activity Over Potential Drug Pricing Control Legislation

donkey and elephant figurines on top of American flag, with pills and a stethoscope

U.S. federal lawmakers are discussing various legislative plans that could lower the out-of-pocket expenses many Americans pay for their medications. The plans are coming from both chambers of Congress and with a divided government, lines in the sand will likely be drawn.

On Wednesday, members of the Republican-led U.S. Senate met with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to talk about the pricing proposals bandied about by the White House. The proposal from the Trump administration would be to base what the federally-funded healthcare program Medicare pays for prescription drugs based on prices those medications are sold at in other countries. For some Republican lawmakers, the idea is a controversial one. As The Hill reported, these Republicans see that notion as placing foreign price controls on the U.S. marketplace. Currently, the proposal from the White House remains in the early stages and no legislation has actually been put forth, but that hasn’t stopped the criticism.

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As could be expected, the administration’s proposal is something that the drug industry’s lobbying group PhRMA opposes. Steve Ubl, head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, told The Hill that he was “hopeful” that the White House would listen to critics of the proposal and seek another option. Ubl said opposition to the idea was much wider than just the offices of PhRMA, and that he was glad to see many lawmakers expressing similar concerns.

Ubl, and others, are seeking to curb the idea of using the overseas prices, as many of those are strictly controlled due to government subsidies that pay for the medications through publicly-funded healthcare programs. In his concerns, Ubl said tying the prices of the medications to foreign costs would “hinder research and development efforts,” The Hill said. Also, Ubl said that form of price control could harm U.S. patient access to drugs, as patients in other countries have to wait longer for their medications, according to the report.

Supporters of the proposal though have argued that the drug industry is opposed to the price control idea because that will mean a hit to their pocketbook, as the U.S. is the most lucrative drug market in the world. Even Azar, a former executive at Eli Lilly who saw numerous price increases on products developed by that company, has said there needs to be a change, according to The Hill.

While Senate Republicans looked at the White House proposal, in the House, lawmakers are taking a different tack, by grilling pharmaceutical industry leaders over the pricing plans. Earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, launched an investigation into prescription drug pricing practices. Cummings issued letters to 12 drug makers to seek information about the pricing practices, as well as investments in R&D and corporate strategies to preserve market share. The letters were issued to companies that are considered to have medications that are among the costliest for Medicare Part D recipients, or had the largest price increases over a five-year period.

Some of the bills proposed in the House aim to strip companies from having monopolies on certain drug treatments is their prices are above the average price in other wealthy companies, The Hill said.

Not all of the newly-in-charge Democrats are fully behind the sweeping legislative price-control proposals. Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat and head of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee, has been criticized for being too close to the pharma industry, according to the report. Eshoo has called for a careful approach to the issue to ensure they see the “entirety of the issue” before pulling the trigger on a vote.

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