HHS considering action on drug patents over high prices

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia BurwellSylvia Mathews BurwellHHS projects 13.8M ObamaCare signups for 2017 Republicans demand documents from insurers on ObamaCare 'bailout' Top health officials: Funding delay hurt Zika response MORE said Wednesday that her department is considering issuing guidelines on an executive action known as “march-in rights” as a way to fight high drug prices. 

At a Ways and Means Committee hearing on Wednesday, Burwell was asked about a letter from more than 50 House Democrats last month urging HHS to issue guidelines on the administrative action. 

Under a 1980 law, when federally-funded research was involved in creating a new drug, HHS can assert “march-in rights” to break a drug patent when the price is too high and not “available to the public on reasonable terms.”

The lawmakers asked for HHS to issue guidelines “in response to price gouging” for when this power could be used, saying that just the issuance of guidelines could warn drug companies to avoid price hikes. 

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), one of the authors of the letter, asked Burwell Wednesday if the proposal in the letter is receiving her “thorough consideration.”

Burwell confirmed that the proposal is being considered. 

“It is,” she said. “Your letter we have received, thank you, and we are continuing to try and pursue every administrative option. We’ve proposed legislative and statutory changes as part of the budget, but are looking at a wide array, of which we welcome your letter and your suggestions.”

The prospect of “march-in rights” would be a major step in fighting high drug prices, which have become a major issue in the presidential campaign. Democrats Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonFive takeaways from New Hampshire Senate debate Trump losing cash race in final weeks Report: Biden on top of Clinton's short list for secretary of State MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersPicking longtime fixer as chief of staff proves Clinton hasn't changed The Trail 2016: Wikissues Brent Budowsky: An epic battle for the future of Congress MORE have pounded drug companies, and even Republican Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from New Hampshire Senate debate Trump losing cash race in final weeks Vulnerable GOP senator questions opponent's American heritage MORE called for allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, an idea strongly opposed by pharmaceutical companies. 

The Obama administration has proposed Medicare negotiation and other legislative ideas around drug prices in its budget, but Doggett argued that executive action is needed. 

“Clearly legislation is required, but you and I know that lightning could strike the Capitol dome in the same place not twice but 10 times, and this Congress would not be willing to stand up to the pharmaceutical lobby,” Doggett said. “It is essential that the administration use every tool at its disposal.”