Guest Columnist

Pharma execs should stop grandstanding and cut prices

Officers of pharmaceutical companies testify before the Senate Finance Committee on “Drug Pricing in America: A Prescription for Change, Part II” Feb. 26, 2019 in Washington, D.C. From left to right are Richard A. Gonzalez, chairman and CEO of AbbVie Inc; Pascal Soriot, executive director and CEO of AstraZeneca; Giovanni Caforio, chairman of the board and CEO of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.; Jennifer Taubert, executive vice president and worldwide chairman of Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Johnson. (Win McNamee/Getty Images North America/TNS)
Officers of pharmaceutical companies testify before the Senate Finance Committee on “Drug Pricing in America: A Prescription for Change, Part II” Feb. 26, 2019 in Washington, D.C. From left to right are Richard A. Gonzalez, chairman and CEO of AbbVie Inc; Pascal Soriot, executive director and CEO of AstraZeneca; Giovanni Caforio, chairman of the board and CEO of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.; Jennifer Taubert, executive vice president and worldwide chairman of Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Johnson. (Win McNamee/Getty Images North America/TNS)

It’s not every day an Iowan has the opportunity to wake up and ask top executives of seven major pharmaceutical companies the question that’s on the minds of most Americans: Why do prescription drug prices keep rising in America?

That’s exactly what I did Tuesday when I chaired a congressional hearing of the Senate Finance Committee. It’s the second in a series of hearings I have called to examine drug pricing in the United States.

It also gave these company leaders a chance to look in the mirror and tell America why drug prices keep soaring.

One in four Americans report financial hardship paying for their prescription medications. When they can’t afford to buy them, Iowans tell me they have left their pills on the pharmacy counter or rationed their doses until the next paycheck.

Raising the curtain that cloaks price transparency and addressing hand-over-fist escalation of drug prices is a top priority as I lead the agenda for the Senate Finance Committee, which has legislative and oversight jurisdiction over federal health programs, including Medicare and Medicaid.

These two programs account for 37 percent of national health care expenses that reached $3.5 trillion in 2017, nearly 18 percent of GDP. That’s according to data available from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The federal agency also reported Americans spent $333 billion on prescription drugs in 2017 with taxpayers footing a lion’s share of the burden through government programs.

Many people believe Big Pharma is gaming the system and artificially raising prices at taxpayer expense.

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Iowans deserve to know why a drug that has been on the market for nearly a century — lifesaving insulin — has risen in cost by 500 percent in recent years, for example.

The pricing structure of the U.S. health care system can boggle the mind. When you go to fill a prescription, the list price of the medicine shouldn’t be shrouded in secrecy, hiding behind curtains of complexity and confusion. Transparency brings accountability. That’s why I am working to curb abusive practices designed to stifle competition, require price disclosure in television Rx advertising and weed out other murky behaviors that prevent price transparency and stop a free market with robust competition, enterprise and innovation.

Congress has a responsibility to be a meaningful check on the spending of taxpayer money. The Trump administration has identified a number of anti-competitive industry tactics, such as withholding samples, pay-for-delay, citizen petitions abuse, product-hopping and rebate bundling.

I’ve already introduced several bipartisan proposals to address abusive tactics, increase competition and accelerate generic entry into the pharmaceutical marketplace. Ending “pay-for-delay” agreements and prohibiting branded drug companies from denying generics access to product samples are good starts. With strong FDA guardrails in place, I also support importation of prescription drugs from Canada. Common sense reforms can strengthen innovation, safety and efficacy and drive down costs.

I appreciated the willingness of the seven corporate executives to come before Congress to testify. I have no doubt they expected a tough line of questioning from the committee’s 15 Republicans and 13 Democrats. Despite hours of preparation and high-priced advice from K Street consultants, I had hoped they would come genuinely prepared to offer substantive solutions and not just shift the blame. At times, I was disappointed. This hearing was their opportunity to shoulder some accountability and share solutions. Disclosing list prices for prescription drugs is a remedy that needs to be on the table, for example.

Tuesday’s hearing is among the first steps the committee is taking this Congress to get to the bottom of rising prescription drug costs. I am committed to fixing flaws in the system to help lower costs for patients and taxpayers.

As a lifelong farmer who raised hogs, cattle and sheep on our Butler County family farm, I’ve been around long enough to know when someone’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes. It’s time to stop the grandstanding and leave the barnstorming to the presidential candidates. Let’s roll up our sleeves and identify prescriptions that will lower drug prices without sacrificing miracle cures and lifesaving treatments that Americans have come to expect at prices they can afford.

• Chuck Grassley is a Republican U.S. senator from Iowa.

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