- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Congressional committee chairmen from both parties said Tuesday they’ll force pharmaceutical companies to publicly prove they need to charge high prices for popular drugs such as insulin, as they warned life-saving medicine is slipping out of reach for many Americans.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said insulin prices have gotten so bad that constituents are cutting back on doses they need to regulate their blood sugar.

“This is unacceptable, and I intend to specifically get to the bottom of the insulin-price increase,” the Iowa Republican said.

Across the Capitol, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings noted his first hearing in the new Congress was with Antroinette Worsham — an Ohio woman whose daughter died after rationing her insulin — rather than one of the slew of Trump-connected figures Democrats are eager to haul before their committees.

The chairmen’s comments underscored Washington’s appetite for taking on the pharmaceutical industry in the new year.

Voters frequently cite prescription costs as a leading concern, so President Trump and members of both parties are brainstorming ways to shake up the system and drive down prices.

Mr. Grassley said he invited drug companies to testify Tuesday but many refused, saying they’d prefer to speak in private.

“One company said testifying would be a problem because of a language barrier,” he said. “I thought we all spoke English. So that is not what I mean when I talk about transparency.”

His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Ron Wyden, said even tobacco companies showed up during their time in Congress‘ crosshairs.

“They all lied to me, but at least they showed up,” he said. “The drugmakers are going to have to show up as well.”

Mr. Grassley acknowledged the complexity of drug pricing and the perceived gulf between Democrats, who favor government-oriented solutions, and Republicans who favor free-market pressures. Still, he saw room for bipartisan ideas, such as the safe importation of drugs and a crackdown on companies who “rip off” taxpayers by misclassifying their brand-name drugs as generics, resulting in lower rebates to Medicaid.

“I hope that we can prove naysayers wrong,” Mr. Grassley said.

The chairman also said he wants drug companies to disclose their list prices in television ads — a key idea in Mr. Trump’s pricing blueprint. The White House rolled it out with great fanfare last year, but it is still taking root.

Other Republicans floated ways to tweak incentives within the supply chain, so that drug company rebates and discounts flow directly to consumers instead of middlemen. They also highlighted efforts to tie the price medicines to how effective they are for patients.

House Democrats want to go further. Mr. Cummings is pushing bills that would allow Medicare to negotiate down the cost of drugs directly, break up monopolies for drugs that are priced far above what other countries pay and allow the importation of drugs from Canada.

Witnesses warned his panel that negotiating prices for all drugs would be an undertaking, and suggested starting with a limited set of high-cost drugs to see what approach works.

For its part, the pharmaceutical lobby says its industry is committed to easing pain on consumers and that part of the problem is a shift to high-deductible plans by insurers. The industry also said heavy-handed measures from the government will crimp the ability to fund new research.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said that argument can only stretch so far for a 100-year-old product like insulin, where the research was done decades ago.

The Health Care Cost Institute says the average national price per prescription nearly doubled from 2012 to 2016, from $344 to $666.

Kathy Sego, a choir teacher from Indiana, told senators that her son Hunter — a college student with Type 1 diabetes — decided on his own to curtail his insulin doses because he was shocked by the cost to his family.

“I’m heartbroken to know that my son felt he was a financial burden to us,” Ms. Sego said. “Money over life is not the choice I want him to make.”

Ms. Sego said insulin is far cheaper in other countries — the same vial cost $487 out of pocket in the U.S., but $10 in Hungary — so Congress should consider ways to give U.S. consumers a similar deal.

Mr. Grassley has said he is open to the safe importation of drugs from Canada.

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