WASHINGTON — Members of Congress from both parties served notice on pharmaceutical companies Tuesday that the days of unchecked drug-price increases were over and that they would be held politically accountable for exorbitant prices.
The new reality became apparent at simultaneous but separate hearings of House and Senate committees where lawmakers said that the relentless increases were unsustainable and unacceptable.
“There is a strong bipartisan consensus that we must do something to rein in out-of-control price increases,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. “Drug companies make money hand over fist by raising the prices of their drugs — often without justification and sometimes overnight — while patients are left holding the bill.”
On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Finance Committee, and Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the senior Democrat on the panel, denounced drug company executives who they said had refused to testify voluntarily.
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Grassley expressed “displeasure at the lack of cooperation from the pharmaceutical manufacturers” and vowed to insist on their testimony in coming months.
Wyden said: “Even the Big Tobacco CEOs were willing to come to Congress and testify, and they made a product that kills people. They all lied to me, but at least they showed up. The drugmakers won’t even do that much.”
Lawmakers are far from agreement on legislative solutions. Price restraints are sure to face resistance from a small army of pharmaceutical lobbyists.
But the hearings Tuesday were the opening round in what promises to be a yearlong investigation of drug prices. And lawmakers see a potential for cooperation with President Donald Trump, who has promised to “bring soaring drug prices back down to Earth.”
“On this particular subject, not only is he serious, but he’s serious about working in a bipartisan way to lower prescription drug prices,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who is one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress.
In response, Cummings said, “We are ready, willing and able to work with him.”
While expressing concern about high drug prices, Republicans were skeptical of solutions that would authorize price controls.
Government intervention in health care markets has distorted incentives, thwarted competition and “resulted in a mess,” said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the senior Republican on the House Oversight Committee.
But Jordan, a staunch conservative, expressed concern about tactics used by drug companies to prolong patent protection for their products, delaying competition and keeping prices high.
Under the Constitution, Jordan said, patents are meant to protect inventions “for limited times.” But, he said, this guarantee has been transformed by some drug companies into “an evergreen right to exclude others from selling similar drugs.”
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said that patents encouraged inventors to come up with lifesaving drugs and medical devices. But he said, “Our Founding Fathers never wanted a patent to go on forever.”
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said some drug companies had used “disgraceful tactics” to extend patent protection for their drugs. He noted that one company had sold its patent rights for a blockbuster drug to a Native American tribe, with the hope that the tribe would use its sovereign immunity to fend off challenges by makers of low-cost generic copies of the drug.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said that the federal government, through the National Institutes of Health, was an “early investor” in the science that underlies many new drugs. The public, she said, is “putting tons of money” into drug development, but often receives no direct financial return.
On both sides of the Capitol, lawmakers heard Tuesday about the particular problems of people with diabetes.
Antroinette Worsham of Cincinnati told the House committee that one of her daughters, Antavia, died in 2017 at 22 because the family could not afford the high cost of insulin.
“I am crying out and asking for you to review the pharmaceutical price gouging,” said Worsham, who has formed a nonprofit group to raise awareness and provide financial help to those who cannot afford treatment.
Kathy Sego of Madison, Indiana, told the Senate committee that her college-age son, Hunter, who also has diabetes, had skipped doses because of the cost of insulin.
“Hunter decided to purchase one vial of insulin instead of the four vials he needed for the month,” Sego said. “Unbeknown to me and my husband, Hunter was rationing his insulin. Rationing meant he didn’t eat in order to keep from having to give insulin that metabolizes food.”
Grassley, who is known as a tenacious investigator, vowed to find out the reasons for sharp increases in insulin prices.
“I have heard stories about people reducing their lifesaving medicines, like insulin, to save money,” Grassley said. “This is unacceptable, and I intend to specifically get to the bottom of the insulin price problem.”
When President George W. Bush signed legislation adding prescription drug benefits to Medicare in 2003, it was hailed as the biggest change since the creation of the program in 1965. “We’re giving seniors peace of mind that they will not have to face unlimited expenses for their medicine,” Bush said then.
But Dr. Catherine Alicia Georges, the national volunteer president of AARP, the lobby for older Americans, told the House panel Tuesday that Medicare beneficiaries were once again desperate for relief.
“Older Americans have seen their prescription drug prices skyrocket,” said Georges, a professor of nursing at Lehman College of the City University of New York. Moreover, she said, “the research pipeline is full of products like orphan drugs, biologics and personalized medicines that face little competition and will undoubtedly command even higher prices.”