Uproar over drug pricing puts GOP in the hot seat

Uproar over drug pricing puts GOP in the hot seat
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The growing furor over drug prices is putting Republicans in a pickle.  

As top Democrats seize on accusations of price gouging and profiteering by drug companies, the majority of Republicans have remained silent — even as they’re accused of blocking probes into these cost increases.

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So far, only one Republican lawmaker has agreed to investigate the drug companies grabbing headlines this fall for sky-high price increases, in one case by as much as 5,000 percent overnight.

“This is a complex issue,” said Sen. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsOvernight Energy: Lawmakers work toward deal on miners’ benefits Schumer: Senate Russia probe moving too slowly Collins: I'm not working with Freedom Caucus chairman on healthcare MORE (R-Maine), who is leading a bipartisan investigation as head of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. “We want to make sure we don’t stifle innovation and the development of new drugs in the pipeline.

“We need to proceed carefully and make sure we understand what is the reason behind what appears to be exorbitant and unjustified price increases by some of these firms,” she continued.

The backlash against drug companies is coming to a head after more than a year of friction, fueled by headlines of hepatitis C  medication Sovaldi’s $1,000 price tag, and further exacerbated by the aggressive pricing of Valeant Pharmaceuticals and Turing Pharmaceuticals.

The Maine senator has planned the first of multiple hearings on that controversial pricing strategy involving off-patent drugs on Dec. 9. She says at some point, the embattled CEOs of both Valeant and Turing will be asked to testify.

Collins, who frequently sides with Democrats on healthcare issues, said she expects Republicans to support her efforts because it’s an issue that “will concern many of our members because it really represents a market failure.”

Her counterpart, Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillFive takeaways from the Georgia special election Picking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups Potential McCaskill challenger has .7M: report MORE (Mo.), the committee’s top Democrat, reiterated that the issue should be bipartisan — and it’s one that “deserves more attention on both sides of the Capitol.”

In the House, however, some Republicans say they are turned off by Democratic attempts to blame Republicans or demonize the pharmaceutical sector.

“They tried this 10 years ago, and they failed. I think they’re just grasping for things here,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), referring to Democratic attacks on the drug lobby during debate over Medicare Part D coverage.

Still, Shimkus condemned any drug company that buys the rights of a decades-old drug just to dramatically increase the prices, which he said amounted to “abusing the system and reaping profits.” 

“Should there be a look at that? I don’t mind having hearings to investigate and shaming people for not doing the right thing. But for the most part, people have to understand that R&D for major blockbuster drugs take years and years to do,” he said in an interview.

No hearings in the House have yet been planned, though Democrats in both the House Ways and Means and Oversight committees have demanded probes. Oversight Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzChaffetz to have surgery, will miss several weeks in Washington Overnight Finance: Inside Trump's tax plan | White House mulls order pulling out of NAFTA | New fight over Dodd-Frank begins Oversight Dems want vote on Trump tax return bill MORE (R-Utah), who has faced the most criticism from Democrats, declined to comment for this story. Newly elected Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin BradyKevin BradyNot too shabby: Trump tax plan nails corporate rate, errs on income Overnight Finance: Inside Trump's tax plan | White House mulls order pulling out of NAFTA | New fight over Dodd-Frank begins GOP leaders, top tax writers: Trump principles will be 'critical guideposts' MORE (R-Texas) did not return a request for comment.

The intensifying debate over the Valeant and Turing pricing strategies is forcing Republicans to confront the far bigger problem of the rising costs of prescription drugs more generally.

It’s an issue that has for the first time outranked ObamaCare as voters’ top health issues this year, according to polls.

“It has become a major consumer issue. Anyone who isn’t talking about it is going to be seen as tone-deaf to the concerns of American consumers,” said Dan Mendelson, president of the healthcare consulting firm Avalere.

But it’s also more likely to be a problem for the GOP, which has mostly backed the drug lobby’s efforts to trim regulations over the years. In return, it’s enjoyed a far larger share of campaign cash, Democrats have been eager to point out.

“If you’re Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Energy: Trump orders review of national monuments, claiming ‘egregious abuse’ Dem rep: Trump's tax plan as believable as 'magic, unicorns or Batman' Sanders: Trump tax plan makes 'rigged' system 'worse' MORE, you can talk about it, untethered, because you believe in government price controls,” Mendelson added. Other presidential candidates, he said, “don’t want to go there because they don’t believe in the government’s ability to set prices.”

On the campaign trail, GOP contenders seem to be taking note of the escalating importance of the drug pricing debate. Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioWhat’s with Trump’s spelling mistakes? Boeing must be stopped from doing business with Iran Top Trump officials push border wall as government shutdown looms MORE (R-Fla), retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former CEO Carly Fiorina have all spoken out about rising drug costs and the role of the drug lobby in shaping those prices.

“As far as Big Pharma is concerned, you know, they’re in it to make money. And I understand that. But we need to have some alternative ways, because we need to be able to take care of our people,” Carson told a crowd at a recent campaign event.

It’s reminiscent of the 2008 presidential race, when Sen. John McCainJohn McCainTrudeau, Trump speak for second night about US-Canada trade McCain: China has done ‘nothing’ on North Korea Trump administration weighing order to withdraw from NAFTA MORE (R-Ariz.), the 2008 Republican nominee, used national advertisements to boast of his efforts to take on drug companies.

During one primary debate, his then-rival Mitt Romney said: “Don’t turn the pharmaceutical companies into the big, bad guys.” 

McCain replied: “Well, they are.”

As the issue resurfaces this year, many Republicans are joining in on the attacks on what they call a few bad actors — a tactic that the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America has also used.

The pharmaceutical trade group has worked hard to distance its own companies from Valeant and Turing, condemning the companies’ practices and reiterating that they do not represent the group.

But Democrats, who are trying to reset Congress’s healthcare agenda from ObamaCare to drug prices, have pushed back against the idea that only a few companies are to blame.

“Exorbitant drug prices are not about one wrongdoer,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) said at a briefing earlier this month. “They are a systemic problem that involves a wide range of manufacturers.”

- This post was updated on Nov. 18 at 7:58 a.m.