- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Senators delivered a public grilling Tuesday to pharmaceutical bigwigs for deflecting blame over high prices and accusing them of protecting their drug monopolies like “Gollum with his ring.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, said he’s sick of companies passing the buck to insurers or others in the supply chain, while Democrats challenged companies to use their gains from the 2017 tax overhaul, or else come up with other answers for high prices.

“It’s time to be proactive, because if you do not make meaningful action to reduce prescription drug prices, policymakers are inevitably going to do it for you,” warned Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat whose state of New Jersey is home to three of the seven companies that testified.

Some lawmakers talked about their own troubles, saying their medications had at least doubled in price for no apparent reason.

“I don’t know which of you to blame,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican.

Meticulously prepared pharmaceutical CEOs urged Congress not to go for headline-making quick changes, saying it will jeopardize innovation and thwart the pursuit of new cures.

They instead backed ideas being pushed by some in Congress or the White House to pass discounts straight to consumers, cutting out middle-men who demand bigger rebates off higher list prices.

“The current system is based on high list prices coupled with rebates. This is not sustainable,” said Pascal Soriot, CEO of AstraZeneca.

Mr. Grassley and the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, have made soaring drug prices their top priority in the new year.

They kicked off the hearing by saying high list prices are soaking taxpayers who fund Medicaid and Medicare — and by warning the witnesses that lying to Congress is a crime. The companies initially wanted to meet with senators behind closed doors, but Mr. Grassley and Mr. Wyden insisted on a public session.

“Like most Americans, I’m sick and tired of the blame game. It’s time for solutions,” Mr. Grassley said.

Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier and Bristol-Myers Squibb CEO Giovanni Caforio said they would support new models that price products based on their value to patients.

Executives also pledged to slash prices if President Trump’s push to pass rebates directly to consumers were extended beyond Medicare and directly to the private market.

However, the CEOs rejected Mr. Trump’s idea to align U.S. prices to just slightly above what other developed nations pay for the same drugs.

AbbVie Inc. CEO Richard Gonzalez said if U.S. prices were slashed that dramatically, his company would not be able to invest in research.

Mr. Wyden wasn’t convinced. He said since companies still make a profit on drugs sold overseas at prices lower than that charged in the U.S., it seems like his constituents are getting a bad deal.

“How is that not gouging the American consumer with high prices?” he said.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, focused on the large number of patents AbbVie maintains on Humira, one of its blockbuster drugs, voicing the concern of a number of senators who feel companies hold onto monopolies for too long.

“At some point that patent has to end so that the patient can get access to that drug at much cheaper cost,” Mr. Cornyn said.

Pundits compared Tuesday’s hearing to the grilling tobacco companies faced in Congress decades ago. But unlike Big Tobacco, whose products are blamed for premature deaths, the pharmaceutical executives could point to the life-saving power of their products.

Mr. Frazier and Jennifer Taubert, a top executive at Johnson and Johnson, pointed to the personal pain of losing their parents to Alzheimer’s Disease and lung cancer, respectively, and the role pharmaceutical companies play in finding new cures.

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