Congress, White House on right track tackling prescription drug prices

Congress, White House on right track tackling prescription drug prices
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It would be easy to think that the current political climate makes it impossible for anything to get done in Washington. Divided government prevents bipartisan action on even the most inconsequential legislation. The Mueller investigation continues, with new twists and turns reported on cable news in relentlessly unending loops. The longest government shutdown in American history is over, but the specter of Shutdown Part II looms.

Seemingly every day, new Democratic presidential candidates join the field, positioning themselves as the most unwilling to work with the man they hope to unseat in 2020. Viral stories such as the yearbook photos of Virginia’s governor dominate the news cycle for days on end. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress debate the futures of their respective parties as insurgents from the extremes threaten intra-party unity.


It is no wonder that many outside observers believe substantive legislative action in 2019 is little more than a pipe dream. Such a view would be shortsighted, however; Congress and the president are moving closer to a major deal on what may be one of the most important issues facing America today.

According to a Health Affairs study published last month, the cost of brand name and specialty drugs increased well over 10 percent annually between 2008 and 2016. For example, the cost of insulin used to treat type 1 diabetes nearly doubled between 2012 and 2016, while one-third of Medicare patients with leukemia have said they were forced to stop taking their medication when the cost of Gleevec rose to $146,000 per year. Five years ago, patients and insurers were livid when the price of Sovaldi, a Hepatitis C medication that wipes out the disease in three months, inexplicably rose to $84,000 per course of treatment.

Today, Sovaldi is not even in the top 10 most expensive drugs in America. Without reform, the problem will only continue to get worse. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimates that drug prices will continue to rise well above the rate of inflation. Polling consistently puts high prescription drug prices near the top of the list of issues most important to Americans. The problem has not gone unnoticed by either President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pitches Goya Foods products on Twitter Sessions defends recusal: 'I leave elected office with my integrity intact' Former White House physician Ronny Jackson wins Texas runoff MORE or the Congress.

Key committees in both the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate recently held hearings to investigate high drug costs. This follows proposals by Health and Human Services  (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar to require pharmaceutical advertisements to include retail prices, and to tie Medicare’s payments for some drugs to the prices offered in European countries.

Last week, the Trump administration went even further when HHS announced a proposal that would ban the system of pharmacy benefit manager rebates that many consider a key contributor to increasing drug costs. The plan would redistribute the savings of drug rebates to consumers and away from the pharmaceutical industry. Other ideas being floated in Congress are to import medications from other countries, prevent pharmaceutical companies from manipulating patent law by incentivizing generic manufacturers to delay marketing low-cost alternatives, and to allow the government to negotiate drug prices under Medicare — an idea supported by President Trump during his 2016 campaign.

Both Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderIllinois House Republican leader won't attend GOP convention in Florida: 'It's not going to be a safe environment' Conservative group launches ad campaign for Rep. Roger Marshall in Kansas Senate race Republicans considering an outdoor stadium for Florida convention: report MORE (R-Tenn.) and Charles GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyIllinois House Republican leader won't attend GOP convention in Florida: 'It's not going to be a safe environment' Trump administration to impose tariffs on French products in response to digital tax Big Ten moves to conference-only model for all fall sports MORE (R-Iowa) chair committees with oversight over drug prices and are much less industry-friendly than previous Senate committee leaders. Combined with President Trump’s actions and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiUS praises British ban on China's Huawei after pressure campaign Voter fraud charges filed against GOP Rep. Steve Watkins Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel MORE’s frequent mentions of her desire to tackle high drug costs, the stars may be aligned for a bipartisan deal on the issue. And not insignificantly, newspapers in the early presidential primary states have strongly editorialized about the need reign in drug costs. All the factors appear to be in place for a deal.

Passage of meaningful drug pricing legislation is far from a sure thing. The pharmaceutical industry remains one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington and there are significant differences among the parties as to which policies to support. Much work remains to be done before a bipartisan deal can be struck.

But one thing is for sure: while both parties jockey for political advantage and people outside the beltway grow weary of the partisan gamesmanship they see on their televisions every day, there is still a realistic chance of bipartisan compromise on an issue of profound importance to many Americans. Let’s hope that Congress and the president are able to bridge the divide and close the deal.

Former Congressman Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007-2013. He is senior consultant for Avalere Health, a health care consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @jasonaltmire.