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Drug Price Hearing Set as Lawmakers Weigh Prescription Costs

By Andrew Siddons, CQ Roll Call

November 4, 2015 -- Lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol Wednesday criticized the rising cost of prescription drug prices, an issue that is resonating on the campaign trail.

The Senate Special Committee on Aging will hold a Dec. 9 hearing on the tactics some drugmakers take in jacking up the price of drugs, its top members announced Wednesday.

Susan Collins, R-Maine, the committee's chairwoman, and ranking member Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., wrote to four companies that recently hiked prices for decades-old drugs. The companies include Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which increased the cost of one drug by almost 3,000 percent, and Turing Pharmaceuticals, which boosted the price of a treatment by more than 5,400 percent.

"Given the potential harm to patients across our country who rely on these drugs for critical care and treatment, the Senate Special Committee on Aging considers these massive price increases worthy of a serious, bipartisan investigation into the causes, impacts, and potential solutions," Collins said in a press release.

The committee's investigation will examine price increases on newly acquired drugs that were created years ago and have lost their patent protection. The senators also will look into mergers within the industry and the Food and Drug Administration's generic drug approval process.

Turing Pharmaceuticals has been under fire ever since it raised the price of a drug from $13.50 a pill to more than $700 a pill. Valeant Pharmaceuticals has similarly come under scrutiny for its business model of acquiring drugs that don't have much competition and pushing up their prices. 

The Senate hearing will amount to the most significant congressional action so far on the issue of rising drug prices, which affects the finances of federal health programs such as Medicare and the cost of private insurance.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 77 percent of Americans believe the president and Congress should ensure "high-cost drugs for chronic conditions" are "affordable to those who need them."

Drug prices have become an issue for presidential campaigns of both parties, including Democratic candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, as well as Ben Carson and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

"There is no question that some people go overboard when it comes to trying to make profits, and they don't take into consideration the American people," said Carson, who currently leads in some polls.

House Democrats' Criticism

Also on Wednesday, Democratic House members accused the majority party of ignoring the issue.

"Republicans have repeatedly refused our requests to do anything about this issue," said Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government reform. "Not a single letter. Not a single hearing."

Cummings and other House Democrats announced the creation of a drug price task force. Noting how pharmaceutical costs are frequently cited by their constituents, the Democrats described the actions they are taking to solve what Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, called a "systemic problem that involves a wide range of manufacturers."

The Biotechnology Industry Organization said Democrats overlook the need to provide funds for further research and development.

"We hope that this newly formed task force organized by a small group of House Democrats will take a balanced approach and focus not only on the question of affordability of medicines, but also on the equally critical need to sustain continued medical innovation for the patients," spokesman Kenneth Lisaius said in a statement.

Cummings and other oversight panel Democrats sent a letter Wednesday to the committee's chairman, Jason Chaffetz of Utah, asking for a hearing to grill executives of pharmaceutical companies they say engage in "price gouging."

Democrats said that in late September they requested a hearing with Valeant Pharmaceuticals CEO J. Michael Pearson and Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli. Chaffetz hasn't replied.

"It suggests that you believe this issue is not worth the Committee's time," said the letter.

Committee Democrats also asked for a Nov. 17 meeting to vote on subpoenas to compel documents from Pearson and Shkreli.

Other Democrats speaking Wednesday called for changes in the Medicare Part D drug program to allow the Health and Human Services secretary to negotiate directly with companies on prices.

"Change that ability for the secretary to negotiate [and] we could bring the prices down," said Jim McDermott, D-Wash.

Push for Public Shaming

The Democrats have begun a letter-writing campaign to the leaders of committees and subcommittees on which they serve.

Sander M. Levin, D-Mich., the Ways and Means Committee ranking member, said Democrats would send a letter to its new chairman–either Kevin Brady of Texas or Pat Tiberi of Ohio, whoever succeeds Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin– seeking a hearing on prices.

Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said she and Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., the top Democratic House appropriator, similarly wrote to Tom Cole, R-Okla., who leads the appropriations subcommittee overseeing health care. DeLauro noted the impact on Medicare, Medicaid and the AIDS drug assistance program.

Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, pointed to a bipartisan amendment in the House Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill that directs the HHS and Veterans Affairs departments to analyze pharmaceutical price increases and compare the domestic prices of the most expensive drugs to prices in Canada and elsewhere.

"The analysis can be used to identify possible cost savings," she said.

Earlier this year, Cummings introduced with Sanders several bills to address rising prices. One bill (S 1364, HR 2391) would make companies pay a rebate to Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor, when a drug's price rises faster than inflation. Another (S 2023 , HR 3513) would allow the importation of lower-priced drugs from Canada and require reporting on how much is spent on research and development.

HHS also will hold a day-long forum on Nov. 20 about drug costs.

Democrats hope one other tactic will affect pricing.

"Shaming is important," said Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. "This is going to resonate with the American people, and I think drug companies will be shamed into responding."

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