- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2019

House Democrats launched a broad probe Monday into high prescription drug costs, saying the rapid rise in prices is “unsustainable” and soaking taxpayers and patients alike.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, sent letters to a dozen drug companies seeking documents on their recent price hikes, strategies to maintain market share and investments in new cures.

Companies say those investments are critical, even if they force U.S. customers to pay higher prices than other developed countries.

Yet Mr. Cummings is afraid companies are putting investors before patients.

“For years, drug companies have been aggressively increasing prices on existing drugs and setting higher launch prices for new drugs while recording windfall profits,” the Maryland Democrat said. “The goals of this investigation are to determine why drug companies are increasing prices so dramatically, how drug companies are using the proceeds, and what steps can be taken to reduce prescription drug prices.”

His letters went out to well-known companies, including Pfizer, which has tussled with President Trump over prices hikes, and Eli Lilly, where Health Secretary Alex Azar worked as an executive before joining the administration.

The investigation, combined with a planned hearing on prices later in January, suggests prescription drugs will be a key avenue of inquiry for Mr. Cummings, beyond newly empowered Democrats’ plans to dig into Mr. Trump’s business ties and 2016 campaign.

Drug prices are a leading concern for voters in both parties, especially seniors and parents of children with chronic conditions.

In recent years, Congress has tried to name and shame companies for buying up older drugs and suddenly hiking the prices. And it took Mylan, the maker of EpiPens, to task for increasing the price of its auto injectors for allergy sufferers from $100 in 2009 to more than $600 in 2016.

The debut of a number of Hepatitis C drugs that cost up to $1,000 per pill only added to lawmakers’ sense of urgency.

With 2020 on the horizon, various players in Washington are maneuvering to put forward the boldest or most effective solutions to the problem.

(moved up) President Trump has vowed to bring down costs through his extensive pricing blueprint, which focuses on free-market reforms that increase transparency or drive up competition.

He also wants to go bold by aligning prices of doctor-administered drugs in Medicare Part B with what other countries’ pay.

Democrats have offered bills in the same vein, though say Mr. Trump needs to go further. They’ve proposed a series bills that would use government authority to negotiate down prices or allow consumers to import drugs from Canada.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and new Senate Finance Committee chairman, supports the importation idea but is trying to strike a balance, saying he doesn’t want a heavy-handed approach that smacks of price controls or allows other countries to set U.S. costs.

He said Monday that drugmakers have a right to innovate and protect their intellectual property, but not if it means engaging in “unfair business practices and anti-competitive behavior that harms consumers and cheats taxpayers.”

For now, Mr. Cummings is laying down an aggressive marker on his side of the Capitol. His letters to leading companies seek details on specific drugs, including a slate of diabetes drugs as patients cry foul over the rising cost of insulin.

He says there is little time to waste, as taxpayer and personal spending climbs astronomically.

The Health and Human Services Department inspector’s general found that payments for brand-name drugs in Medicare’s prescription-drug benefit increased by 62 percent from 2011 to 2015, even though the number of prescriptions fell by 17 percent.

Mr. Cummings said overall spending on the program, known as Part D, is expected to climb to nearly $100 billion this year.

Patients are paying more out-of-pocket because of rising prices, too, the chairman said, noting the percentage of Part D beneficiaries who paid $2,000 out of their own wallets doubled from 2011 to 2015.

For their part, drug makers argue they provide plenty of rebates and discounts to ensure that consumers who need their drugs can afford them.

They want Congress to look beyond their industry and scrutinize insurers who’ve structured plans with high deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs.

“A comprehensive policy solution for people with chronic diseases requires commitment from everyone in the healthcare system,” Eli Lilly said in a statement. “To that end, we look forward answering questions from the [oversight] committee. Until a comprehensive solution is reached, we will continue our work that provides thousands of people each month with access to insulin at significantly lower out-of-pocket costs.”

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