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HHS Airs Concerns About Rising Drug Prices

By Melanie Zanona, CQ Roll Call

November 20, 2015 -- Health and Human Services (HHS) officials signaled Friday they want to help curb soaring prescription drug prices but didn't say what steps the administration might take or lay out a timetable. 

With presidential candidates and lawmakers from across the political spectrum questioning drug pricing, HHS held a forum Friday to discuss the challenges and solutions to ensuring patients have access to affordable, innovative medicines.

"We're here today to listen and learn," Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said. "Though this problem is complex, we know that action will be needed from all of us here today."

The debate over drug pricing has intensified over the past year, driven by instances in which companies such as Turing Pharmaceuticals and Valeant Pharmaceuticals hiked the cost of decades-old drugs. Such moves have stoked public perceptions that drug costs are ballooning: 72 percent of respondents to an August Kaiser Family Foundation poll believed drug costs were unreasonable.

Friday's forum was intended to air the views of insurers, drug companies, patient advocates and others in the debate. There was a general consensus that the pressing issue could be addressed through regulation or legislation.

Some solutions floated included allowing the government to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies on behalf of Medicare instead of relying on insurers, requiring greater transparency about how drugmakers set their prices and shifting towards more value-based health plans that reward efficiency.

"People deserve the right to know how a drug is priced and how much was paid by taxpayers in the form of research to develop that drug," said Debra Whitman, chief public policy officer at the seniors lobby AARP. "Right now, prices are set arbitrarily. Consumers don't have all the information they need."

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., has helped elevate the topic on the campaign trail. He introduced legislation (S 2023) in September that would require greater transparency; allow drugs to be imported from licensed Canadian pharmacies, where they are often sold for less; and terminate patent exclusivity periods for manufacturers that commit fraud, among other things.

Andy Slavitt, acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said his agency spent $140 billion on prescription drugs and that spending on medicines increased 13 percent in 2014 while overall health spending grew 5 percent.

But Slavitt was also careful to emphasize the importance of balancing affordability with innovation, a leading concern among drugmakers.

"I hope that today's public dialogue kicks off a commitment to listening and working together to advance ideas that improve access, affordability and innovation so all Americans have access to the breakthroughs ahead," Slavitt said. "We look forward to working with you in the weeks and months ahead."

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America said there is a need "to look at spending across the health care system to find solutions that ensure access to high quality, patient-centered care and continue to encourage development of innovative, life-changing medicines."

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