Trump battle over drug prices heats up

Trump battle over drug prices heats up

The Trump administration is taking credit for a series of announcements by drug companies to freeze drug prices for the remainder of 2018, arguing it is proof that the president’s tough talk is leading to results.

Amid a pressure campaign led by President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House counsel called Trump 'King Kong' behind his back: report Trump stays out of Arizona's ugly and costly GOP fight Trump claims he instructed White House counsel to cooperate with Mueller MORE himself, five drug companies have said they will not increase prices this year, while one announced decreases for some medicines.

“This is the pharmaceutical industry seeing the writing on the wall. They know that President Trump and I are committed, that we’re going to be bringing prices down,” Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar said Thursday during an interview on the Fox Business Network. 

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In the past week alone, European drugmakers Novartis, Roche, Bayer and Merck KGaA said they would not increase prices on drugs for the rest of the year, while U.S.-based Merck said it would discount seven drugs. 

Merck is the only company to actually announce price decreases, but the discounts won't stretch to its more profitable and expensive medicines. 

Its Hepatitis C drug, Zepatier, which it is discounting by 60 percent, scored zero U.S. sales in the first quarter of this year. The other six drugs decreasing in price have lost their patent protection and are available from other manufacturers as cheaper generics. 

Other top pharmaceutical companies, including Johnson & Johnson and Gilead, have made no commitment to reduce prices or prevent them from rising.

Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky said last week that change is needed in how drugs are covered and paid for in the U.S., but made no commitment to drop prices.

A Gilead spokesperson issued a “no comment” when asked by The Hill about its plans. 

Critics say the fact that some drug companies, at least for now, are not raising prices means little to families struggling to afford high drug prices, and don’t line up with Trump’s promises.

“The president in May promised there would be massive, voluntary price decreases in a couple of weeks, and we haven’t seen those,” said Rachel Sachs, a drug pricing policy expert and associate professor of law at Washington University. 

“All we’ve seen so far is a couple of companies choosing to delay planned price increases, which is unlikely to have much of an impact on patients or on prices more generally,” she said. 

Drug prices have spiked over the last decade, putting a pinch on consumers who have not seen wages keep up with the hikes. 

Prices for the Novartis cancer drug Gleevec, for example, rose in price by 440 percent — from $26,000 to $140,000 — from 2001 to 2017. 

“Drug companies don’t get credit for keeping prices high,” said Ben Wakana, executive director of Patients for Affordable Drugs. “The bar for giving drug corporations credit for good behavior cannot be this low.”

Still, drug companies may be feeling some pressure from Trump — and the prospect of a Democratic House in the next Congress.

Calls for action on drug prices are coming from the White House and Democrats in Congress, creating at least the perception of an issue the two sides could agree to work on if Democrats gain power in November. 

“It’s clearly a time when there’s a lot of scrutiny on drug companies and pricing decisions. It makes sense that each company is thinking about the potential public relations and political implications of price increases,” said Ian Spatz, a former Merck lobbyist and current senior adviser at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, a health-care consulting firm in D.C. 

An HHS spokesperson said HHS has been in contact with “relevant stakeholders” about drug prices, and The Hill previously reported the administration has been meeting with executives to ask for cuts in prices.

Pfizer CEO Ian Read met with Trump and Azar Thursday to talk about drug costs, a White House spokesperson said. 

“The President and the Secretary have been clear that prescription drug price increases must stop. It’s an important step that these companies are taking and a win for American patients,” said HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley.

For Novartis and Pfizer, at least, the announcement comes as the companies are embroiled in controversy. Both could stand to gain favor with Trump and the public. 

Pfizer agreed to postpone its price increases after Trump took to Twitter to say it should “be ashamed” for “taking advantage of the poor and others unable to defend themselves.” 

And Novartis faced fire recently from congressional Democrats for its past relationship with ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. 

The company paid Cohen $1.2 million to work as a political consultant, and a report released by Senate Democrats last earlier this month concluded that the relationship was more extensive than previously stated. 

Four days later, CEO Vas Narasimhan said the company would hold off on price increases for the rest of the year. 

Both companies were rewarded with a Trump tweet Thursday morning, blasted to his 53 million followers: “Thank you to Novartis for not increasing your prices on prescription drugs. Likewise to Pfizer. We are making a big push to actually reduce the prices, maybe substantially, on prescription drugs.”