Congress decries soaring drug prices, pledges solutions

January 29, 2019

A powerful Republican launched his probe into high drug prices Tuesday by slamming the rising price of insulin, saying it’s placed life-saving medicine out of reach for diabetes sufferers.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley said it’s gotten so bad that constituents are rationing their supply because they don’t know where to turn for relief.

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

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

She said the problem threatens to upend every aspect of his life, from paying his student loans to taking a girl out on a date.

“It comes down to this: Hunter needs insulin to live, but should that need for insulin keep him from living?” she testified.

Ms. Sego said insulin is far cheaper in other countries, so Congress should consider ways to give U.S. consumers a similar deal.

Mr. Grassley centered on the problem as part of a broader push to crack down on the soaring cost of prescription drugs. It’s a top concern for voters, and therefore President Trump and Capitol Hill lawmakers in both parties.

Mr. Grassley acknowledged the Byzantine nature of the pricing system and the gulf between Democrats, who favor government-oriented solutions, and Republicans who favor free-market pressures. Still, he saw room for bipartisan work.

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

Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, lashed out at pharmaceutical companies, saying they’ve “turned American patients into beggars” and didn’t exactly leap at the chance to testify on the Hill about their prices.

“The drugmakers are going to have to show up as well,” Mr. Wyden said.

He also blasted companies for relying on government funding for some of their research into cures, only to gouge taxpayer-funded insurance programs once those medicines hit the market.

The session heralded Washington’s first big foray into the pricing issue this year. House Democrats on the Oversight Committee heard from experts and constituents Tuesday in a similar hearing across the Capitol.

The pharmaceutical industry says it’s taken steps to ease pain on consumers but that heavy-handed measures from the government will upend free access to drugs and their ability to fund new research.

The White House, though, says big changes are needed.

It’s implementing a “drug pricing blueprint” to bring down costs, yet some of his boldest proposals haven’t taken root yet. They include forcing drug companies to disclose their list prices in TV ads and making sure U.S. consumers pay only 26 percent more than other developed countries do for doctor-administered drugs under Medicare.

In a Tuesday op-ed, Health Secretary Alex Azar said he won’t accept Big Pharma’s explanation that deep discounts and rebates lighten the pain for consumers. He said the starting list price is what’s important to Mr. Trump.

“Overall drug spending by insurers and patients does not rise as much as the list price increases might suggest, so drug companies claim that the annual list price hikes do not really matter,” Mr. Azar wrote in STAT News. “But Americans know better, because increases in list prices hit their pocketbooks. Each January, many Americans see their insurance deductibles reset, and they have to start over again paying out of pocket based on list prices for the drugs they need.”

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